Nova Chamber Series: Contemporary Cold @ Libby Gardner 01.22

Posted January 27, 2012 in
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The Nova Chamber Music Series concert on Jan. 22 started with Eliot Carter’s Elegy for Viola and Piano, whose humid and sunlit tone of joy swept the dust right out of my eyes. Lyrical and contrapuntal (the two instruments are in key with each other, but playing individual melodies, not one supporting the other), this music feels unusual, in part because of the register of the viola, its warmth and human range. The groovy speed and flexible phrasing implies something southern and older, and it is surprising when cut and formed by the very modern language the songs are actually forced into. It played on my ears like a cubist version of an American Spiritual song--a church song. Julie Edwards’ viola and Jason Hardink’s piano seemed oddly transformed by the music--at one moment I felt the air leave through the now audible clerestory created in the cathedral ceiling of my mind. One could almost feel the flies and wet heat at the corners of the message. And, just as I was coming to know my way around this new sunlit room, the music was over and echoing away. For me, this was the most accessible and pleasant of the pieces I did not already know that day.

I had been down with the flu when I came to see this concert, so my feelings are probably colored by daytime cold medicine and sniffles. Even that doesn’t change how difficult I found it to claw my way into much of this concert’s music. The music challenged over and over again the common and sentimental views I hold about what music is and isn’t. I felt impatient with myself and the experience, almost as though my flu had reset my adventure mode back to not. I wanted to shout, “The King Has No Pants !”on several occasions during the show--I had a similar reaction to Captain Beefheart’s Troutmask Replica, or John Coltrane’s Ascension, if you know what I mean. It takes time to change. It takes time to love new art. We dislike the new and we hate the unfamiliar. We do best exposed to new things on the periphery of our senses. So taking, head on, a concert of really really fresh, challenging new music, left me dazed, left me confused, and left me tired, but not defeated.

Jason Eckardt’s excerpt from Undersong, a cello solo called, A Way (Tracing), was played with charisma and human wonder by Noriko Kishi. Her tone, like the piece itself, was all over the place, humble and searching here, fierce and spitting there. There was just about no part of the cello that did not get played--she was bowing the bridge by the end of it, and the bridge doesn’t even make any music. Mr. Eckardt, who was here to introduce, described the piece as fractured, submerged, disconnected and subversive. A music, he said, intended to hide the melody under misleading and obfuscatory musical ideas. And brother, if you aren’t prepared for the very contemporary--the kind of thing that in my experience, Hungarian, Romanian and French intellectuals are ready to accept, but which I, an American bartender in Salt Lake, just am not--it was a trip down incredulity lane. I just didn’t get it. Totally went over my head. Probably a great and interesting thing, but ... I couldn’t tell you why. I wish I could. I wish I could hear it again. I am tempted to buy it on CD--there is an award winning (?!?!) version of Undersong by Ensemble 21 on Mode Records.

Steve Roens’ world premiere of his commissioned piece, Simple Precepts for string trio, was preceded by a talk by the composer, who is a faculty member of the University of Utah. His organization of the trio’s seven parts was as much a structural game of canons and solos as it was an expression of anything else. It was fun to hear all the thought that went into building the piece and then to follow along as it was played. That was a welcome doorway in a world of music that often seems mystifying, though beautiful. In the end, it was well received by the audience, and the trio that played it--Hasse Borup (violin), Ms. Kishi (cello) and Ms. Edwards (viola)--seemed to enjoy its progress immensely. The music itself seemed pretty dry, cool and structural, to my ear, but then structure was what I was listening for in this case.

Like his contemporary, Wallace Stevens, Charles Ives worked in insurance for a living. He composed daring, original music in near anonymity most of his life. Many of his compositions were never played while he lived, but his thoroughly American choice of source material and his solidly experimental style make him among the most important American composers. The duet between the illuminated violin of Ralph Matson and the slightly stormy piano of Mr. Hardink, was an assemblage of American old-timey themes recollected in a black bordered collage by Picasso. Each movement seemed anxious to throw the listener off the trail, or rather, like the wild mouse ride at Lagoon, each movement turned unexpectedly ninety degrees and plowed ahead once or twice. Starting in slowly, in one key, then boom, haunting and familiar melodies that you just don’t know exactly where from, pour from both the violin and piano in a different key, a secure and agreeable key. But, each play different melodies, the two fighting and agreeing to disagree--magpies haunting robins for worms beneath an oak. And then boom, a third key and different lighter songs for just a moment, and then the movement is over. That is pretty much how the whole piece was constructed. It made me laugh out loud by the end.

Anthemes II by Pierre Boulez required an entire electronics staff and sound support from a computer and eight or nine monitor speakers (Bully! for such an adventurous show, by the way.) Boulez wrote this piece as a commission for the 1991 Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition, and later he reorganized the piece to include a series of effects played discreetly from different speakers in different parts of the auditorium. Now, this was pretty neat as an idea, but really in execution, it feels like a borrowing. It’s hard to say that the piece is more than novelty. The violin plays on the stage into a microphone, the various versions come out of each of the numerous speakers, in various changing ways. Sometimes slowed and extended, the music reappears, sometimes fuzzed, sometimes later and in a different form, sometimes a sharp echo. It didn’t seem to take advantage in any real emotional way of communicating, but once I closed my eyes and just listened, it was an OK sort of space ride. In his defense, Boulez is a theorist and proponent of electronic music, and an early actor in the field of electronic dance. His thinking influenced the trip-hop and jungle movement of the 1990s, which produced remarkable, affecting music, which, I don’t think Anthemes II is.

Maurice Ravel, Sonata for Violin and Piano, is a personal favorite. Ravel spent four years writing this piece, which he saw as a marriage of very dissimilar voices. He was writing a piece for two fundamentally incompatible instruments ... emphasizing their irreconcilability through their independence. The performance sort of emphasized that disparity, which isn’t necessarily the way it might be played. Drawing heavily from American jazz, there is a spirited lyrical aggressiveness in the violin part, and a tit-for-tat jive in the piano part. The violin, however, was played with classical skill and taste by Mr. Matson, and for me, that seemed a little reserved. He could have used some of that loud splashy pizzicato Ms. Kishi threw around earlier in the program. Mr. Hardink gave a fair measure of vivaciousness to his part, which filled the hall rather remarkably during some of the more thundering moments of this upbeat piece. It was fresh fruit on the tongue to hear--familiar and sweet.

The next concert of the NOVA Chamber Music Series is on February 12 at Libby Gardner Hall, and will feature alternating movements of Bach’s Art of Fugue, Stravinsky and Mozart.