In an unusual ambience at its “Music of Today” concert Sunday night, the ensemble Sounds New combined music by living composers, professional-level playing, and good programming. The result was an interesting and refreshing concert. The ensemble consists of the now-traditional “new music” quintet of flute (Lenora Warkentin), clarinet (Richard Mathias), violin (Brook Aird), cello (Catherine Allen), and piano (Herb Bielawa), and added the baritone Alan Shearer. The performance took place in the untraditional setting of the “narthex-atrium” of the First Unitarian Church in Kensington, among the the indoor trees (complete with shedding leaves!). Only the dim and patchy lighting marred this set-up.
Belinda Reynold’s Covers (1996) for flute, cello and piano opened the program. Although initially seeming to announce minimalist loyalties, the piece soon proved to be equally guided by a romantic sense of dramatic change and instrumental gesture. The combination was driven by the cyclic, cellular rhythms typical of minimalist style, while the lyrical lines both contrasted with that repetitive factor and were propelled by it. Reynolds also showed a strong command of ensemble writing and the gradual building of texture. Although the predominately circle-of-fifths tonal movement became predictable, the piece closed with a refreshing and humorous perfect cadence.
Then followed Brook Aird’s performance of Distractions (1987) for solo violin, a student composition by Bruce Bielawa, (the son of ensemble member and composer Herb Bielawa), who described it as “a kind of young valentine to 20th Century music.” In two sectional movements, Distractions is characteristic of the motivically saturated, wide-interval intensive, post-Vienna “modern” style. It held together very well because of Aird’s committed and tonally beautiful performance and Bielawa’s idiomatic writing for the violin. Although the piece gave few surprises, its formal organization firmly held the audience’s attention.
A French-American mix
Arthur Gottschalk’s skillfully written Two Dancers (2001) for flute and clarinet, billed as the third movement of a larger work, was itself composed in five short sections. It is strongly influenced by the master French wind composers, Milhaud, Poulenc, yet has a distinctly American sound recalling the music of Gottschalk’s teachers, Ross Lee Finney and William Bolcom. Gottschalk utilizes Latin rhythms and a pleasing balance of traditional tonality — the most traditional of the evening — and bracing dissonance. Warkentin and Mathias were a superbly balanced and dynamic team.
The ensemble was joined by baritone Alan Shearer for the premiere of John Swackhamer’s Settings of Melville, two poems, “The Martyr” and “Billy in the Darbies,” of unabashedly dark content. “The Martyr” began with the words “Good Friday was the day . . .,” the reference unambiguous, the setting stark. In his strong, confident voice, Shearer was accompanied closely by the ensemble, pacing the measured lament of the singer, now ahead and now behind. The song wanted more pathos and emotiveness and there was a certain first-performance cautiousness from Shearer.
In British slang “Darbies,” are handcuffs, and “Billy” is Billy Budd, shackled and condemned to hang in the morning, singing of his impending death. While embracing the spirit of the great man’s setting, Swackhamer skillfully side-steps Britten’s famous setting. Warkentin picked up the piccolo for a surreal evocation of the sea chanties heard on the above decks. However, the strange mood and texts of both songs were treated too consistently. Greater contrast between the settings might have made its strange parts more powerful.
Capturing a quality of Carter’s
Warkentin and Allen gave a sure-footed, if somewhat dynamically compressed rendition of Elliott Carter’s Enchanted Preludes (1988) for flute and cello. Carter’s highly complex rhythms often come out sounding like improvisations by performers with an extremely high awareness of each other, and Warkentin and Allen managed to capture that quality.
Herb Bielawa’s Emergency Measures, composed for members of the ensemble, was premiered here by Mathias, Allen and Bielawa himself, playing a MIDI keyboard that can produce digitally recorded (sampled) percussion sounds and synthesized sounds. Though well crafted and dramatic, Emergency Measures suffered from some incongruous balance problems between the acoustic and electronic instruments. I found myself wishing for more intervallic variety and never quite got over the artificial percussion sounds. A final percussion climax was especially ill-balanced.
Warkentin returned alone for Greg Steinke’s “Inquietude” (1995). It would be a pleasure to hear this flutist just playing scales, so this rather short “etude-like piece” was a delight. In fact it did use a few exercises and famous orchestral excerpts, as it was the composer’s intention to recreate his conservatory days. He dedicated it to the memory of William Kincaid, a legendary flutist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
An attempt at classical-jazz fusion
Tom Benjamin’s Licks was the closer, with Mathias on alto sax, Bielawa at the piano and Brook Aird playing the high-hat the wrong way! Though billed as a “light-hearted little theater piece,” and not without its moments of fine writing, the work came across rather awkwardly. Save for a bit of mugging by the performers, there wasn’t enough theater written into it to offer any story, and the listener was left wondering what was supposed to be funny. I believe that the combination of “jazz” and classical style for classical ensembles is more or less doomed to failure. Purportedly based on jazz styles with chromatic interruptions, there really was nothing of jazz here, except a vague reference to something halfway between the Pink Panther and Miles Davis’ “So What.” The sections based on more chromatic composition were the most successful. The composer’s “1950s Bebop Licks” didn’t even start to swing. Thus an otherwise strong evening ended on its weakest offering.
By Ken Durling
(Ken Durling is a composer, performer, and teacher active in the San Francisco Bay Area.)