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Richard Wilson’s Legacy at Vassar Honored

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 28th, 2017

Richard Wilson

Composer and teacher Richard Wilson and his wife Adene (Dee), founders of Vassar’s Modfest, were honored with a concert in Skinner Hall on January 28th. Wilson has taught at Vassar for the past fifty years. Wilson, now professor emeritus, is simply one of the most significant American composers of the past fifty years. His prolific output has included 19 orchestral pieces (the most acclaimed of which are Symphony No. 1 and Articulations); 30 works for mixed ensemble; five string quartets; eight works for solo piano (“A Child’s London” will be performed at Skinner Hall on February 4th at 3 pm); 12 compositions for solo instruments; over 20 works for voice; 11 works for choir; a one-act comic opera, Aethelred the Unready.

Harvard-educated Wilson (he sang in the Glee Club) remains noted for blending traditional harmony with adroit use of atonality. There is an amusing quality of wit in the interplay of instruments. His idiom is quirky, unpredictable, and pleasant to the ear—definite rhythm and nimble chromatics—characteristics of the mélange of material presented in his honor.

The program opened with “Duo Variations for Double Bass and Harp” by colleague Jonathan Chenete, Dean of the Vassar Faculty and Professor of Music, performed by Ashley Jackson on harp and Brian Ellingsen on double bass. What might have sounded like an eighteenth century parlor piece was magically both contemporary as well as a reinvention of the past. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger appeared to sing, dramatically, “I give you back” by Annea Lockwood. The lyrics were by turns histrionic, shocking, and cutely vulgar. Nessinger’s voice shook the seats and nearly rattled the organ pipes. This was a stunning piece, yet I did not know what to make of it.

Soprano Susan Botti followed with two poems by Denise Levertov that Botti arranged. Her voice is both coy and charming as she rocks back and forth on her heels while she expressively engages the audience with clear diction and modulating volume. She was accompanied by a quartet tightly in sync.  

Richard Wilson’s “Dithyramb for Oboe and Clarinet” showcased the fascinating dynamics of unlikely but convincing vector intersections and echoes of musical lines. Stuart Breczinski played oboe with passion and Moran Katz ably countered on clarinet in this male-female duet conversation.

Botti appeared once more with her arrangement of “Fats” Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” where she seductively brought down the stars of the night sky. Brian Ellingsen on double bass sounded like a one-instrument jazz band as he plucked and sawed with acute rhythm.

The concert concluded with Wilson’s “Gnomics for flute, oboe, and clarinet.” Catherine Gregory on flute joined Breczinski and Katz for this wandering enigmatic piece. I had heard it played at Vassar once before yet it remained fresh and mysterious as ever. Below appears a video of Wilson's "Mixed Signals."

Wilson is a remarkable talent stamped with modesty, charm, and wit, as he transforms what’s difficult into something that has the surface appearance of simplicity while his music whispers ethereal profundity and paradox. The hundred attendees were wild with enthusiastic applause.