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Delightful Richard Wilson Night at Vassar

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Feb 3rd, 2019

From left: Amy Schroeder, Keiko Tokunaga, Andrew Yee, Nathan Schram

Vassar College’s Modfest Festival is now in full swing. At Skinner Hall the Third Honorary Adene and Richard Wilson Concert was presented to an enthusiastic audience. Sophie Shao opened with Tan Dung’s Intercourse of Fire and Water, recently premiered a couple of months ago at Carnegie Hall. This solo cello piece appears to chart the gradual development of love between two protagonists. The paused opening registers dramatic awkwardness. There is caution leading to romance that overcomes obstacles with a happy, climactic ending despite the travel though dissonant terrain. Shao performed this demanding and intense piece with insouciant charm.

Soprano Susan Botti, accompanied by Ashley Jackson on harp, sang three songs to poems by Denise Levertov, Rabindranath Tagore, and May Swenson. Botti wrote the compositions and I thought the arrangement was dramatic, exploiting the open vowels of these poems for heightened effect.

Attacca Quartet, which specializes in attacking contemporary compositions with intense vigor, played Gabriella Smith’s (b. 1991) Carrot Revolution. In the opening movement the shell of Andrew Yee’s cello functioned as a percussion instrument. There was much electric tension in this piece with the players unified in working with eloquent repetitions before a sudden breakthrough to another melody, a technique that recollected one of the conceptual signatures found in the compositions of Joan Tower. As in Tower’s work, there was great suspense and sudden surprise conclusion.

The odd title of Smith’s work finds explanation in an interview as a quotation “attributed to Cezanne in Emile Zola novel, which runs: ‘The day will come when a freshly observed carrot will start a revolution.’” That novel, L'Œuvre (1886), charts the troubled relationship of Zola with his childhood friend, a fine, marvelous novel not much read today. In the novel Cezanne looks at the world anew yet fails to create a great sociological masterpiece that resembles Zola’s novels. This quartet is about hearing traditional classical instruments anew with playful sallies into pop rhythms, bluegrass, and even Ligeti.

The World Premiere of Richard Wilson’s String Quartet No. 6 followed. Wilson introduced the piece by saying that he had read that older composers tend to pare down and simplify their work, but that was not his approach. In rehearsing the quartet with Attacca he told them that they could overcome any difficulties by playing the quartet at least twenty times at important venues like Carnegie Hall or Wigmore Hall in England—then everything would be clear to them.

The first movement was entitled “Figures in Play.” Here each instrument made its appearance with individuality and engaged in conversation, not readily agreeing with each other, but in the end coming to lively agreement after witty dissonant diversions; the spritely conversation moved along with that witty and genial charm so characteristic of Wilson’s compositions. “Chattering” was just that as each instrument advanced its own virtues at comic full-tilt pace, especially the adroit racing violins of Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga. “Stealth Tones” allowed the instruments to blend and discover agreements through surprising detours, and just when unanimity appeared to hold sway, Nathan Schram’s viola, which had been attempting to get more attention throughout the work, ran with a pleasant lyric solo which Yee’s cello suddenly objected to—the reversal effect was delightfully comic. Wilson’s work radiates with urbane mastery.