Yes, contemporary music composition still lives and sings! This semi-annual performance of chamber music by living composers organized by Joan Tower and Blair McMillen opened at the Lásló Z. Bitó Conservatory Building with Gabriela Lena Frank’s Trio Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (2001). “Toyos.” The first movement centered upon viola played by Joseph Burke who dexterously leaped about; in “Chasqui” Clare Bradford’s cello and Nina Sin I Wong’s strings delivered an adept weaving of strings; “Coqueteos,” which means flirtation was based on gaucho (cowboy) music and depicted a dancing situation between the sexes; in this last movement Yinglin Zhou on violin was simply outstanding with soaring rustic bravado amid the amusing atmosphere. Frank’s music exhibits an exotic melding of South American music with other global traditions. Her work is expansive, exciting, unpredictable.
Gyӧrgy Kurtág, a Hungarian minimalist profoundly influenced by the writer Samuel Beckett, supplied Hommage á R. Sch. Op. 15d (1990) which offered five very short movements inspired by Schumann of about a minute duration each, followed by a homage to the French troubadour poet Guillaume Machant, noted for his forceful rhythms. Wei Zhou on piano often led in this futuristic landscape while Emmanuel Koh on flexible viola dueled with the wandering clarinet of Collin Lewis. The last movement, which runs at about six minutes, sent me adrift into temporary trance where I lost my own place in time for half the musical run.
A selection of Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades (2013) presented a peculiar genre going back to the Middle Ages: folksongs about notable killings which enjoyed a three-part structure: background leading to the murder, the murder itself, and the hanging of the murderer, as piano player Harrison Jarvis cheerfully explained. Jarvis on piano was accompanied by Rea Ábel on four different flutes, Collin Lewis on two clarinets, Lily Moerschel on vibrant cello, Zongheng Zhang on fierce violin, and Petra Elek on percussion. Dessner nearly raises chamber music to orchestral level. The external fierceness of the music is accompanied by conjuring unusual sound combinations from instruments at play. The first ballade had a nautical atmosphere; the second a dark alley in a city; the third a rural crossroad ambush; the last two appeared to be about a famous femme fatal murderer. I was overwhelmed and disorientated by these pieces played with such fiery unity.
Pianist Helen Wu performed Five Preludes by Galina Ustvolskya who passed away thirteen years ago. She was a student of Shostakovich; her work deserves more exposure and recognition in this country. I found every prelude to be extraordinary: Manichean contrasts exploded with unpredictable rhythms and silences, and yet the musical line held and prompted the heart to wonder. I wanted to hear more.
Mezzo-soprano Pauline Tan sang an Estonian-German Christmas lullaby arranged by Arvo Pärt who has been the most performed living composer in the world since 2010. Tan sang with clear diction and impressive emotion. Countertenor Chuanyuan Liu joined Tan to sing an ancient Estonian Lullaby arranged by Pärt. As a countertenor, he can also sing baritone; his voice has a natural, sensitive feel with embedded lyrical nuance. They were ably accompanied by Ryan McCullough on piano, Zongheng Zang on violin, and Jonathan Eng on viola.
Steve Reich’s 2010 Mallet Quartet (2009) set two vibraphones against two marimbas. I find the lower register of the marimba to be more pleasing. Sam Gohl and Luis Herrera-Albertazzi on marimba went up against Jonathan Collazo and Petra Elek on vibraphones. Musically speaking, this was stimulating with over-extended melody and abrupt rhythmic shifts, yet in this fast-paced race up-and-down hill I predictably cheered for the lower-pitched marimbas at the imaginary finish line. Reich remains one of the most provocative composers of our era.
The musicianship exhibited by these adept students was stunning. I hope that this series continuous to flourish.