The “Arsenal” in the Kitchen
by Anne O'Neill ©2006
COMPCORD. Sergei Belikov : Angel's Dance ^( 2000) . Patrick Hardish : Sonorities VIII* (2005-06) • Ruth Schonthal: Bells of Sarajevo (1997) • William Mayer: Octagon (1971) • Marta Ptaszynska: In memoriam John Paul II^ (2005) • Elliott Schwartz: Crystal (2003) • Steve Reich: Nagoya Marimbas (1994). Various performers. Presented by Composers Concordance at New York U.'s Frederick Loewe Theatre, May 25, 2006. [^world premiere *NY premiere]
This was an “offbeat” program for Composers Concordance! Since 1983, Compcord has prided itself on its ability to offer multi- timbred programs limited in the size of forces. That fact hasn't affected the general quality of the concerts. So it's to the organization's credit that it undertook an experiment tonight, a program concentrating on the percussive nature of today's serious music, with the piano serving as an informed partner and the “kitchen” itself divided up into many pitched instruments. It made for a diverting yet strong “sit-up-and-take-notice” concert.
There were three instrumental exceptions among the seven works programmed. Just before the last two “pots-and-pans” compositions, we heard an utterly masterful viola solo by Michael Hall of a piece by Marta Ptaszynska. It was a simple and yet affecting tribute to the late Pope John Paul II. Though she concedes that the work has a “mournful character” it never reached us as depressing in any way. The music sets exactly the right tone for an Icelandic prayer from the 9th century. The words are moving in their plea to God for the kind of inspiration an artist might ask for, e.g., “...Give now my spirit Thy beauty. Fill all my days with Thy work!” (The late Pope was at one time an actor and did indeed love the arts.) The musical line supported the words with progressively lovely phrasing and color shifts, and Mr. Hall, playing it from memory, accommodated us with sheer involvement and a gorgeous tone. The selection struck us as a nicely thought out intermezzo amid the rattle and tinkle of percussion.
The other two exceptions, unfortunately, could not match up to the Elegia in sheer musical rapture. Mr. Belikov's opening work for oboe and piano was intended to be “light” and “graceful,” but the less than gracious tones of the chromatic scale belied that hope. Sorry, but one can only sense that Mr. Belikov's years under Soviet oversight allowed him no contact with “angels,” as they had no place in Marxist logic. His catching up with the West in musical liberty may be coming at the cost of past inhibition.
Ruth Schonthal is much more in tune with her feelings. Her Bells of Sarajevo was written during the Balkan conflict, and the composer was certainly among those moved by the tragic events of the mid-nineties. She is herself an escapee of the Holocaust, one of many who fled Germany in the thirties eventually to take up life in the U.S. So it's natural that one might wish to compare her “Bells” with another recent composition, Reverberations , in which she used a prepared piano to alter songs so closely associated with pre-Hitler Germany. It was her way of saying that the Third Reich is now the grotesque prism through which Germany's cultural past is viewed. It's a piece you cannot help but be affected by.
But we don't get any hint of a similar sort of connectivity in this newer work, which was nonetheless earnestly performed by world-class clarinetist Esther Lamneck and pianist Martha Locke. The intended symbolism is certainly there, the bells ring mournfully for the many victims and the prepared piano projects discords that audibly cry out in response to pain and suffering. But it only reminds us of the effect Reverberations had on us, that the composer still longed for the rich German traditions of truth and beauty and logical exploration and that this was deeply engrained in her blood, in her very genes. Sarajevo, on the other hand, seems comparatively remote and unvisited compared to Hamburg and Wien .
Now to the kitchen menu, the stars of this rich meal. The immediate impression one gets from watching Tom Goldstein of the Goldstein-Hoffmann Duo is how intense and focused he is in performance. One sees his instruments as rather belonging to an arsenal, which he treats like weapons, those with much color and brilliance, to be sure. But like weapons in skilled hands, Mr. Goldstein's hits are always on target, with Paul Hoffmann his essential “side gunner.”
This was evident in the performance of Elliott Schwartz's Crystal, a work 18 minutes long that was commissioned by the duo. In response the composer gave them substantial ideas to work with, ideas that reflect the clarity, elegance, brittleness, fragility and, yes, violence of glass (as in Kristall-nacht ). The work has its own logic and is cleverly crafted with melodies constructed from the duo's own names, as well as those of others, e.g., Hindemith and McCartney (for Paul) and Arne and Tallis (for Tom). A shattering experience? Well, it's a work that commands attention-it is involving, sometimes emotionally so-and we think it is one of Schwartz's finest concert works.
Also very well done was William Mayer's Octagon, arranged here for two pianos. We had reviewed his orchestral version on disc before, but this in-the-flesh experience was so enthralling we were hitting the keys mentally right along with the two superb pianists, Judith Olson and Christopher Oldfather. With the latter, a tall fellow, seated closer to the audience, it was easier for him to upstage Ms. Olson, which was a bit unfair, as both were quite alert to and in tune with Mayer's geometric plan. There were many moments of virtuosity called for, which the side-by-side piano positioning rendered possible. (In fact, Mr. Oldfather told us some time later that two-piano “nesting” -where the players face each other-carries special problems with it that can be troubling).
Pat Hardish's piece for timpani solo was of modest length, a bit over four minutes, but it managed to convey just about all of the possibilities one can find in four big kettles. There was plenty of rhythmic interest, tonal variety, varied dynamics and all-around flexibility on display in this eighth solo study by the composer. One hopes he can lay claim to cover all of the major instruments during the rest of his life, depending among other things on the availability of performers like Peter Jarvis, who demonstrated his vaunted skills here completely.
Mr. Jarvis was also one of the two performers on the marimba, along with April McCloskey, who together form the Double Stop Percussion Duo. The selection was Steve Reich's Nagoya Marimbas, a rhythmic showpiece quite familiar to new music enthusiasts. The two were in perfect synch in this “two-part unison canon” with its almost inaudible shifts of phase and subtle melodic patterns. It made for a perfect ending to a slam-bang night of music.