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Contemporary Music Threshold at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Oct 1st, 2017

From left: Meighan Stoops, Curtis Macomber, Steven Beck, Patricia Spenser, Chris Gross

On the first cool night of the autumn season, Da Capo Chamber Players performed a selection of contemporary music at Bard's Lázló Bitó Hall. They opened with a World Premiere of Loop Music (2017) by Christian Li, a pianist, composer and arranger based in New York City. Montreal born (1989), he was raised in Horseheads, N.Y., and has been performing since he was twelve. Primarily a jazz composer, he has just released his debut album, Love’s Last Lullaby. In four movements like a pebble landing in a pond, he created harmonic repetitions with dynamic development. These Haydn-like patterns with piano, flute, clarinet, cello, and violin met and embraced the nuanced yet progressive repetitions one encounters in jazz: the result was a striking, memorable success. This was a World Premiere worth attending.

Sunday, another World Premiere, by Mike Bono (b. 1991) followed. This was a pleasant meditation of what should happen on Sunday yet rarely happens anymore. There was a gentle, meditative tension between the trio of Romantic piano played by Steven Beck, Patricia Spenser on flute, and Meighan Stoops on clarinet. Pitted against this Romantic trio was a dissonant cello intensely played by Chris Gross and an eccentric, satiric violin suavely played by Curtis Macomber. The latter two emerged as the winners of these two paths in the musical woods, yet it was no easy, rigged contest. This was a thrilling yet never angry agon that evoked the pleasures of resting in contemplation for one day of the week.

Mr. Beck then played two Études for Melancholy Robots (2014) by Will Healy (b. 1990). I enjoyed the second of the two, which was more cheerful, witty, lyrical, less mechanical. Hum Phenomenon (2017) by Tonia Ko (b. 1988) was extraordinarily original, so much so that I would need to hear it again. Gross' cello provided a Tibetan style hum while the other three instruments (clarinet, violin, and piano) built an airy structure above the hum. Bottom Heavy (2014) by Scott Lee (b. 1988) was a funky jazz sextet ensemble piece that began well, but became pointlessly and showily shrill as it concluded with Michael Lipsey on drums being more sensitive and lyrical than the other five instruments—a rather heavy-handed irony that pre-limited the scope of other instruments. Beck on piano also had to play an annoyingly low electric bass, which was, I suppose, satiric ,yet irritating.

Altar of Two Serpents (2009) was a flute duo by Mario Diaz de Leon (b. 1979). Program notes declared that this piece dramatized the serpent movement of the kundalini spirit in yoga influenced by the style of Northeastern Algerian music. The beginning third was hypnotic, but midway through I thought I was listening to film mood music. Patrician Spenser and Jayn Rosenfeld on alto flutes played well, yet they travelled on parallel paths that appeared to evoke neither controversy nor illumination.

Distance Over Speed (2016) presented a solo cello by Anthony Cheung (b. 1982). Mr. Gross is an excellent, dramatic, and resonant cello performer. This dissonant piece illustrated its title: strokes from different octaves were juxtaposed with a slow yet energetic rhythm. This was interesting but perhaps more eccentric and impressive than satisfying yet Gross delivered a wonderful performance.

Adjoining (2015) in three movements by Hannah Lash (b. 1981) gave Macomber’s violin a showpiece that featured many runs of deep emotion with emphatic repeated notes. The first movement was lyrical, melancholy, longing for love; the second movement appeared to record soaring love found and consummated, ending with lightly repeated dripping notes as if falling from a house gutter; the third movement was argumentative, strident, and finally apocalyptic. This was an arresting, dramatic piece that I would like to hear again.

They concluded with Media Control (2017) by Pascal Le Boeuf (b. 1986). On clarinet Stoops performed with engaging immediacy and clarity.