NOVA Chamber Series @ Libby Gardner Hall 04.21

Posted May 13, 2013 in
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Photo: Mikel Covey

Nova's final concert for the year was also its most exhilarating, featuring music from the French composer Maurice Ravel, and contemporary American composer C. Curtis-Smith.

The show started off with Maurice Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello played by Robert Walters and Anne Francis Bayless of the Fry Street Quartet. “Transcendent” is the word I would use to describe my feelings about this performance. I felt transported, but also present. The piece itself is easy and attractive with melodies that feel emblematic of nature, but in my head, played this way, it was trippy stuff. And watching the playing, particularly the many blind leaps required of the cello in unison with the violin, made it seem really difficult to play. Like the rest of the day’s concert, writ small, this little sonata seemed like meeting a new friend.

This sonata was written shortly after the first world war and Ravel's mother's death, and after his own longish bout of dysentery. It is a hypnotic, cyclical piece with just two main themes which are used over and over again throughout the four movements, both themes present in the first fifty bars of the first movement. The first theme is a succession of triads, and the second theme a series of consecutive sevenths. The piece over and over again feels like musical spirals falling and starting again to fall–– like a really well done screen-saver for the ears. It is a Modern sounding piece, which set the stage very well for the more contemporary second piece for piano and saxophone from C. Curtis-Smith, whose invented technique of "bowed piano" requires the piano to be played both traditionally and as a new kind of instrument.

This style of bowed piano requires a bit of explanation, as a fair amount of preparation is necessary. A grand piano with the top completely removed is prepared with a number of individual "bows" under strings and string combinations. A towel over the front of the frame and the pinblock holds some of the color-coded bows, which are monofilament fishing line gathered on little color and pattern differentiated adhesive handles. Others hang over the edge of the piano's great black casket. A beer bottle (in this case, a 12 oz. Hop Rising) is used as a slide. And there are three, I believe, finger and thumb plectrums, like alien fingertip extensions. Color-coded dots mark along the key end of the string bed, the necessary strings to be plucked. All of these are used while the pianist, who also plays the keys in a regular way, and whose foot keeps the mutes open for much of the bowing performance, bends over the keyboard of the piano, which might, if it looks as tiring as it is, be also described as “Pain-oh.”

Performing this music was Jason Hardink on piano and Taimur Sullivan on sax. Let's first say that I have never heard a saxophone played without any breath or reed sounding timbre. This piece, Unisonics, calls, I have to assume, for a saxophone tone like liquid chrome. Somehow Mr. Sullivan was able to pull note after note, phrase after phrase, out of his horn as if from a synthesizer. And when dirty notes, brassy and wet-edged, were needed, they too, were especially precise. Maybe I'm ignorant of saxophone technique, but I've never heard anything even close to the sounds that came out of Mr. Sullivan's horn. I felt like it was '67 and I was watching Hendrix in London (without, of course, London, drugs, free-love or ear-damaging volume levels).

In keeping with the jet pack jumpin’ free saxaphone and the Asian cum science fiction sounds coming from Mr. Hardink's piano, the music itself was, pardon the language, groovy and far out. Which makes sense––it was made in the middle of groovy and far out, in a world of classical music that was deeply committed to innovation and experiment. In a sense, I suppose, it is the highest form of Hippy music. Yoko Ono would approve.

The Prelude was an introduction to the unbelievable Saxaphone sound, and the second untitled movement was so odd. When I closed my eyes, I had to assume I was listening to a produced, compressed and limited recording being played in the room. The third, agitated movement was restless like sunlight on a fast creek and the fourth very free movement featured the lowest notes of the piano, sounds of the beer-bottle slide mimicking car horns and storm wails. By this time both musicians were visibly perspiring, keeping the intensity through the head-shoppy postlude.

The C. Curtis-Smith pieces are from his earlier period, Five Sonorous Inventions from 1973 and Unisonics from 1977. Here is an example of a composer who has won most of the important prizes a composer can garner, and yet still remains almost completely obscure––a great shame, because although his health is frail, his music remains vigorous and full of baffling and formerly unrealized sounds and ideas.

This project has been a labor of love for Nova Director Jason Hardink. In introducing the Unisonics portion of the show, he explained that while a graduate student at Rice University, he came across some long out-of-date recordings of the bowed piano pieces, and it changed his whole way of thinking about his instrument. I suppose he has been waiting ever since for a chance to present these very infrequently played pieces to an audience, and fortunately, it was we who got to see them, for the first time in who knows how long. For an afternoon, Salt Lake could say we have something here which you couldn't see anywhere else in the world.

Jason had to set out on a kind of quest to complete today's show, along with two different trips, there were unexpected trip-ups. First, he had to fly to Mr. Curtis-Smith's house, as his health is frail. Otherwise, it would have been a delight to have him over for the concert and a little well deserved recognition. When Jason played his bowed piano technique for the inventor, Mr. Curtis-Smith said he "owned it" and was very encouraged that the show would be a great success. Jason also flew to North Carolina to meet with Taimur Sullivan, one of a very small number of saxophone players who have performed the ultra-difficult Unisonics.

For the second piece, Five Sonorous Inventions, one of the movements requires a prepared violin. Essentially, there is only one, and it’s owned by and was presumably made for Mr. Curtis-Smith himself. The violin, not played in many years, soon broke in rehearsal. It required a significant rebuild from a local luthier who was kind and fast enough to get the job done, literally the day before. And a weird violin it is, too. With a flat bridge, flatter than a fiddle, so that all hard bowing is three or four string chords, with guitar style tuning pegs so that it may be tuned or detuned by a second party while being played, with a metal mute that is both muting and buzzing, so that it may be electrical sounding and muted, like a bee in a plastic jar, and with a matching pair of forceps so that a third person - the page turner––can jiggle the bridge during the performance. This piece is performance art, most certainly, and music, too. The piece was performed with Stephanie Cathcart on violin, and Jason Hardink on piano, and I believe Hillary Hahn on Forceps and Page Turning. For one of the "inventions," as Stephanie played the altered violin, Jason and Hillary hovered so uncomfortably close to her as they made the tuning and bridge adjustments, that the effect was what was surely meant to be extra tension in the performance aspect of the piece (the people behind me whispered of molesting and discomfort). Another of the "inventions" was performed by Jason facing the audience while bowing the piano, and Stephanie, also bowing the piano, with her back turned toward the audience. As much for the eyes as the ears, the effect of these pieces was to bring the audience out of their comfort zone.

The music itself, in its quick five movements, often felt like eavesdropping on a group of experimenters, and the musical text, when I could see the score, appeared to be both stave written and alternately diagrammatic: blocks and odd lines that sounded in performance like fireflies in a well at night––stuff I didn't learn in high school.

The final piece of the afternoon, Maurice Ravel's String Quartet in F major is one of those recognizable pieces of classical music, particularly if you are a fan of Wes Anderson's Royal Tenenbaums, where its second movement plays during one of those delightful montages. In spite of its strictly classical structure, it was only marginally accepted when it appeared. After its 1904 premiere, this Quartet ended up being Ravel's final submission to the Prix de Rome and the Conservatoire de Paris, both of whom immediately rejected it. Gabriel Faure, Ravel's teacher and to whom Ravel dedicated this piece, went so far as to call the last movement "badly balanced, and in fact, a failure." As a result of criticism and rejection of this and other pieces, Ravel left his studies at the Conservatoire in 1905. It didn't take long for the general public to pull behind Ravel and champion his compositions. Claude Debussy privately urged Ravel not to change a single note of the quartet.

As an example of how frequently played the quartet is, the preceding Wednesday, the Benewitz Quartet played, what audience members described as a slavic and unrecognizable version in the same hall as part of the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City's program. Today's performance by the Fry Street Quartet was French in feeling, light and autumnal. It was a performance which did with Ravel's notes what maple trees do with leaves in September––blew them right off the page into the air. I can't say enough what a great quartet the Fry Street was today. Based at Utah State University and permanent Artists in Residence, they are as tasteful and powerful as any touring quartet out there.

The NOVA concert series will return again next season with another innovative and thoughtful lineup of shows, and with the possible addition of some smaller performances in more intimate venues. Next January the Fry Street Quartet will return to NOVA to perform a world premiere of Quartet by Michael Ellison, as well as pieces by Haydn and Dvorak. The Curtis-Smith pieces played that day were recorded for a limited CD release. Check out the NOVA website for information on how to get your hands on these, before they become as rare as their dusty vinyl counterparts.

Photo: Mikel Covey