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Musical Islands at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Apr 9th, 2018

Cast of Dániel Matei's We Want...

What are the future trends in contemporary music? One can find a glimpse of those trends by listening to contemporary composers.  Co-directors Joan Tower and Blair McMillan offered an annual Spring concert at Lászlo Bitó Conservatory Building this past Sunday. Student composition remains one of Bard’s major strengths.

Pavana 4/4 by Russian-born Polina Nazaykinskaya (b. 1987) opened with four trombones. A pavan or “Paduana” originated in Renaissance Padua as an announcement for a solemn feast or wedding where dances evolved from the stately four-measure rhythm. The form became extremely popular in Spain for a few centuries, but has nearly died out. The slow opening movement of Handel’s Messiah is a pavan you might be familiar with.

Polina’s pavan offered a mix of tradition with a Russian twist. The trombone players—Michael Ventoso, William Freeman, Hsiao-Fang Lin, and Yu-Tien Chou—were well-rehearsed, capturing the air of announcement for an important event. Some notes were slightly delayed in the rhythm, which lent some delightful suspense to the work. The surprise ending employed atonality from Russian folk music, as if to question whether the form itself was really so important. This ironic conclusion was a delightful treat. The first person to integrate this strain of atonal folk melody into European music was Igor Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring (1913), which will be played in full at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater next Saturday and Sunday by The Orchestra Now.   

Daniel Castellanos, whose orchestral composition Telescope (2017) I’ve heard with great admiration, decided to pay homage to the composer György Kurtág (b. 1926). I confess I’m a great fan of Kurtág, yet he requires really good solo artists. Kurtág is a rigorous and amusing minimalist—a bit like what William Carlos Williams is to American poetry although much better. Luckily, Castellanos and Luke Haaksma are excellent pianists. They played excerpts from Játékok (Games), Vol. 3 (1979). Playing Kurtág on piano demands an unerring sense of spontaneous rhythm, impish timing, evocative suspense, and a great sense of child-like humor, which both players exhibited with chess-board finesse.

The Allegro from Café Music (1987) by Detroit native Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947) offered popular contrast: Jewish-American theatrical stage pop, which featured lively, memorable rhythms emanating from the strings of Emily Munstedt’s cello, Alex van der Veen’s violin, and the bouncing keys of Kate Blaine on piano.

After intermission, three songs composed by Vassar Professor Susan Botti (b. 1962) were performed. Accompanied by pianist Samuel Oram, soprano Addie Rose Forstman sang two poems by Philippe Jaccottet in excellent French. I thought the musical settings were better than the poems, but that was probably only my problem. Botti took a fine under-examined prose passage from a play by e.e. cummings and transformed it into a really marvelous parlor piece. Freshman Forstman sang this sensitive piece about snow with polish and real emotion. I think cummings himself would have heartily approved.

Domantas Karalius (b. 1980) from Lithuania played on piano The Blue Bamboula (1990) by Charles Wuorinen (b. 1994). Domantas studies under Peter Serkin who has recorded Wuorinen. Serkin was able to arrange for Domantas to visit Charles for instruction on how to play the piece. Domantas informed the audience that the piece was a little mystical, that it had three parts to it: a bit of Haitian drumming, then some voodoo dancing, and finally landing in a “secret place in Turkey.” While quite amusing, that explanation was not particularly helpful to me yet might have been to Domantas. The piece began at the far white ends of the keyboard, leapt to the middle blacks for diversion, then wandered into exceedingly unpredictable directions, which may have described a secret love or some Otherworldly experience that sounded like profound lunacy. Impossible to describe—you had to be there!

Noi Vogliamo… (We Want, a world premiere) by Hungarian-born percussionist Dániel Matei (b.1994) was inspired by Italian futurist musicians. Joined by drummer Jonathan Collazo Matei produced strange scrapings sounds to increasingly wild drumming. Eventually a student with a megaphone appeared to shout in Italian but was drowned out by raucous, now-loud music. This street-agit protest about the raw insanity of politicians who rule the world was drenched with contemporary allegory. This was sensible, oblique commentary on our American situation which has gotten “out of hand.”  

Despite the dramatic tilt into insanity at the end, this was a delightful, fun, lively concert whose engaging trajectory visited many isles in the ocean of contemporary music without succumbing to the Sirens of cliché.