New Music Festival 2009 at Symphony Space
The Soundmind Review, April 20, 2009
This evening I attended an "inspiring" concert called "Inspiration – What Sparks the Imagination?" Five pieces were played, and each left me with an "impression," from a wide range of passion to despair, and humor to awe.
The concert opened with a very lively piece by Kyle Gann, born in 1955 and both a composer and prolific author of books on music, as well as articles appearing in such publications as the Village Voice. His music is often "microtonal," using up to 37 pitches per octave, although this piece for piano solo, called "Private Dances," is not. Originally written in 6 movements, there were 3 played this evening. Appealingly rhythmic, and with alliterative subtitles "Sexy," "Sad," and "Swingin’," the first one was "tango-like," with a left -hand repetitive rhythm, overlaid with a sultry right-hand melody. It almost made one want to get up and move to the pulsating rhythm. "Sad," according to the composer, has "a clear harmonic rhythm while thoroughly obscuring the meter." The final "Swingin’" was "blues" at its best, with a highly syncopated boogie-woogie melody. The pianist, Justin Kolb, was simply outstanding, and played the piece with the energy and drive it deserved.
Paul Yeon Lee has had commissions from the American Composers Orchestra, the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a doctorate in music composition from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and compositional studies with Bright Sheng and William Bolcom, whose music concluded the evening. He also has written a piano rendition, with permission from the Poulenc family, of "Babar the Elephant," frequently played by Pascal Roge. Lee’s "Three Images for B-flat Clarinet and Cello," played tonight, contained provocation, pleasure, and pulsation, with three subtitled movements called "Labyrinth," "Love," and "Passion." The fragment of a melody was the subject of a dream Mr. Lee experienced, and although he wasn’t able to remember the entire tune, he grabbed on to a small portion, and enlarged it. Tom Piercy was the clarinetist, and is so fantastic he could probably burn holes in a plastic straw and play it! Maxine Neuman was the cellist, with a fiery sound that made the piece come to life. The interplay of both instruments, and the feelings of vitality they conveyed, was incredible. From the highest overtones a cello plays to the highest clarinet notes, the spirit was strikingly felt, with impressive animation.
"Language Instruction," by Derek Bermel, concluded the first part of the evening. Mr. Bermel has distinguished himself with the Rome Prize, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships, and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Here we have the "humor" part of the program. The school bell rings, and for the first five or so minutes the musicians arrive, one by one, with the first, the cellist (Maxine Neuman), presenting an "apple" to the teacher, clarinetist Meighan Stoops. The violinist, Renee Jolles, then comes in talking on a cell phone, very laidback, and taking time to "set up." The clarinetist is trying to instruct both to "play what I’m playing!" Of course, they can’t yet, and the pianist arrives (Molly Morkoski), quite late. Now we have four musicians who begin to take on a humorous mixture of Victor Borge and the Marx Brothers! After countless hilarious "tries," the fragments finally come together, and the piece begins to have a life of its own. Of course, all things must come to an end; the school bell rings again, the session is over, and they all high-tail it out. Clever and very amusing!
The composer, Mark Grey, described his "inspiration" for "A Rax Dawn," for piano (world premiere), from watching the play of emerging colors of sunlight and sky in a southern part of Austria, a bit south of Vienna, where he has a residence; Rax Alpen is a mountain range southwest of Vienna. Mr. Grey’s music has been performed worldwide, but he is equally famous as the sound designer for Avery Fisher Hall, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera’s 2008 production of John Adams’s "Doctor Atomic." In "A Rax Dawn," he uses "suggestive" remnants of Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Strauss (these composers were familiar with this part of Austria, and years ago the area was a main artery en route to Italy) -- in addition to the dynamism of Ravel’s and Debussy’s "Impressionism." This is a major piece of music, filled with awe, energy, and power, easily matching the scenery of southern Austria and that "inspiring" morning. Molly Morkoski played with enough vigor to fill two grand pianos; the piece was written specifically for her. This is expansive music, "cinemascopic" music, mountainous music, and towards the end, a surprising, and tenderly beautiful, lullaby-type melody breaks in -– almost as a relief to what had been already played. The conclusion suggested to me the first hints of a fragrant morning rain just beginning to fall from beneath the mountain clouds.
William Bolcom is world famous, and has enjoyed major success with many commissions and premieres, including a symphony last year conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall. This piece concluded the concert: "Trio for Clarinet (Meighan Stoops), Violin (Renee Jolles), and Piano (Molly Morkoski)." Monumental in scope and craftsmanship, and in two binary movements, the opening "Twist of Fate / Mazurka," begins with loud energy and concludes quietly, "march-like" rhythms melting away into a quiet waltz of melancholy. The second "binary" movement, "Apotheosis / Dithyramb," is a personal homage to his teacher, John Verrall. According to the composer, "Here, headlong and frenetic, the music’s forward drive is lightly held back toward midpoint by a recall of the mysterious first section from ‘Twist of Fate." A return to the main tempo and a frenetic "coda" ends the piece. And then an encore! William Bolcom at the piano, and his wife, Joan Morris, singing a Cabaret Song (one of twenty-four he wrote) called "Song of Black Max." It doesn’t get any better than that!
Major music by leading and emerging contemporary composers, and as the subtitle of the program suggested, music that’s impressive and "inspirational."
Written by William A. Verdone