Nova Chamber Series: American Composer Andrew Norman @ Libby Gardner Hall 11.13

Posted November 18, 2011 in

Andrew Norman
Sunday’s concert of the Nova Chamber Music Series featured the first American performance of a major new composition by American Composer Andrew Norman. Mr. Norman is a nice kid, who, at thirty-two years old, is talented as hell, looks like Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock, and writes chamber music like it came from outer space. Mr. Norman is part performance artist--he writes music for groups, but he also moves the musicians around on the stage for dramatic effect between movements and while they are playing.

The trio assembled for this performance, Rebecca Moench (violin), Brant Bayless (viola), and Walter Haman (Cello), was riveting; they played as if channeling the changing static from the atmosphere one moment, and translating anguished prayers from across thousands of years the next. Mr.Norman’s newest piece, The Companion Guide To Rome, is a thirty-minute, nine-movement event for string trio. Each movement is inspired by a particular church in Rome. Mr. Norman spoke briefly before the performance about the year he spent there and how it informed the music, which was an important handhold for many in the audience. For me, the show was so much bigger than that, so much scarier and more beautiful. If you missed the live performance, what you missed was an opportunity to experience the music in its visual, choreographed context. The recording will be great, but the fact is, this piece takes up a whole stage. Like a play set, there are two arrangements of three seats with sheet music on stands, three other sets of stands without the seats for the violin or viola, and two single stands for the two solo movements. During the concert the performers move with slow, deliberate steps from one set to the next for the musical scenes.

The group starts seated as a classical trio for the first two somewhat predictably noisy and abstract movements, Teresa and Benedetto. Think of these as an eraser on the blackboard of your expectations. The somewhat perfunctory modernity of them left me open to the surprise that followed. For when they finished, Mr. Bayless, looking like a contemporary Oscar Wilde, solemnly crossed to stage right for a viola solo that is the movement named Susanna. Mr. Norman recalled, for this movement, that he had become obsessed with a tile mural in this church which was so ruined that just colors and darkness were left, except here and there where images from a thousand years ago still haunted the wall. The music itself was a very electric but primal experience for me, like, I imagine, hearing T.S. Eliot’s dry bones chirping and then a moment later watching a whole rose garden burst into flames.

Movements Pietro, Ivo, Clemente, and Lorenzo were also performed as a trio. And each of these pieces was a short, bite-sized pleasure. Tapas for the ears, if you will. I was particularly fond of Ivo, with its wheel-in-the-sky quality--order, disorder, order, disorder--as if no solution is the solution. As if to reflect something of the flux of a heart pushing and pulling, and lungs breathing, and day and night.

And then, Cecilia, named after the patron saint of music, who Norman said took several days to be martyred, and sang all the while. In her church, a statue of Cecilia faces away from her patrons towards a wall. So, for this piece the solo violinist goes to the back of the stage and plays at the wall, her back turned on us. This particular piece, along with Susanna, was my favorite. A long, solitary death wail transforming slowly into a vision of the spirit escaping this world for the next. The version played by Ms. Moench was heartbreaking, and brought tears to my eyes.

The last and longest movement, Sabina, is played at the final set of stands, where the violist and cellist had already placed themselves, and to where the violinist slowly walked. For this movement the viola and violin play standing up. It is a little more conventional than some of the other pieces, a lushly woven interplay of the three voices making a music which seems to echo Messiaen through Vivaldi, a song of overgrown gardens in sunlight and then oncoming night.

It really is a shame that this piece will only be played this one time by this particular trio. After the performance Mr. Norman commented that the musicians brought real dramatic interpretation to the afternoon.

Preceding the Companion Guide, a smaller solo piano piece by Mr. Norman called Sync Up, (2002) was played with lots of energy and body shaking inertia by Heather Conner. A car chase for keyboard, it was loud and fast and Ms. Conner’s face showed every hairpin turn and cliff-edged stop. A mathematical composition, it comes unexpectedly to one ending, leaving the audience off balance, and then before the vertigo can set in, it restarts, only to arrive at a more rock solid ending moments later.

Opening the program were two selections from Beethoven. The Beethoven Third Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Major was played with an inward reserve by Walter Haman and eruptive physicality by Heather Conner. Mr. Haman’s cello spoke with matter-of-fact candor what can be a really sad and fiery first movement, as Ms. Conner’s aggressive, leaping syncopation brought excitement and breathlessness to the song. The following movements strayed little from the formula, a conversation for cello and piano, one reasonable, and one constantly challenging the other. Like a couple with different hopes and different wishes talking through an evening only to find themselves in agreement after all, Mr. Haman and Ms. Conner played the energetic ending as one.

The Beethoven Song Cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, featured Tenor Robert Breault and Pianist Jeffrey Price. Beethoven’s groundbreaking work features six songs tied musically together to tell the story of an epic love, one lost, but never forgotten. I was put off at first by the choice of a Tenor instead of a Baritone, as my recordings have featured. But once we were in the moment with Mr. Breault, I was with him. I am not a huge Lieder fan. Lieder, or Lied in the singular, is classical music’s name for short song for a singer with or without accompanying instruments. So, my work was cut out for me. I followed along closely, and soon found myself scanning the German for emotional nuance, when out of the blue, I found myself feeling the late Yeats poem, “When You Are Old,” as the English take on this story’s end. The last song of the cycle gets to the trick: “When you sing the song I have sung,” (or, in Yeats’ case, “when you read the words I have composed”) then we will, for a moment, be united as once we had been, through the timeless power of art.

And so we were.
Andrew Norman