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Contemporary English Music

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Composer Tarik O'Regan
One week ago, the Evolution Contemporary Music Series presented a program titled Across the Pond, featuring works by Knussen, Harvey, Birtwistle, Adès, and a world premiere by Peabody professor Oscar Bettison. The Evolution Series uses the intimate space of Baltimore’s An Die Musik LIVE!, where instead of cramped seating, rows of pink overstuffed chairs help create the intimate atmosphere of a salon. Evolution Series director Judah Adashi mentioned that English contemporary music, as with its predecessors, characteristically calls for a high degree of quiet introspection, making this venue particularly well suited for this program. To set the mood, Vaughan Williams’s instrospective Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis was quietly piped through onstage speakers prior to the performance.

The program began austerely with Tarik O’Regan’s Darkness Visible (2008) for countertenor, tenor, and harp, which features repeated harp motifs, played by Jacqueline Pollauf, along with carefully framed dissonances from the singers, Curtis Adamson and Deven Mercer. Pianist Timothy Hoft’s objective approach to performing new music was especially successful: by treating Oliver Knussen’s Variations, op. 24 (1989), as uncomplicated, Hoft allowed the work to be perceived as equally rhythmic, harmonic, and (importantly) pianistic. Though intriguing on many levels by the set of variations, most of the audience – including your reviewer – likely missed its actual theme. The first half of the program concluded with a stage occupied solely by speakers projecting Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980), an eerily playful composition with spontaneous dynamic shifts able to lull the listener into a calm trance with tones at times resembling church bells and boy choristers, then turning to expectedly shake one into rapt attention.

Hoft opened the second half of the program with Harrison Birtwistle’s first movement of Harrison’s Clocks (1998). Again, Hoft’s precise control of dynamics and quiet approach to the keyboard with a perfect technique led to a beautiful automatic sense of music making in a work that used the highest note on the piano and resembled something like a mix of the Prokofiev Toccata and a microprocessor. The world premiere of Oscar Bettison's (b. 1975) experimental Neolithic Airs (2008) for solo violin (Courtney Orlando) with each string tuned to ‘D’ drew much excitement from the audience, primarily made up of Peabody students enthusiastic for their faculty member's piece. Due to the different tensions on each string tuned to the same pitch, each contained a unique timbre, which Bettison exploited by having the violinist repeat the same note on different strings that created an effect of multiple instruments. Some sounds were nearly painful to hear, grating, and yet absolutely purposeful, particularly Orlando’s experimental technique of descending clusters of non-vibrating harmonic bow circles in “Otherworldly,” the work’s last movement.

The program concluded with Thomas Adès' Darknesse Visible (1992) for piano (Stefan Petrov) -- Baltimore readers may recall the Baltimore Symphony’s presentation of Adès works a few years back. Adès created a vast 3-D sonic scape by having the pianist, with pedal down, play repeated notes high and low that later became clusters. He additionally teases the listener with hints at formal harmony while carefully controlling the decay of the layers of sound created.

The compelling Evolution Contemporary Music Series will present two more programs this season.

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