Contemporary Music at Bard on Sunday

Published on October 31st, 2012 | by Stephen Kaye

photo and sound clip from the Sanchez percussion piece that was played at the Music Alive! concert on 10/28/12.

Photo and sound clip from the Sanchez percussion piece that was played at the Music Alive! concert on 10/28/12.

Click below to hear a sample from Music Alive!

Conservatory Sunday 10_28_12

The Fisher Center was host to a performance of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music under the direction of Joan Tower and Blair McMillen on Sunday that revealed the ability of students at the Bard Conservatory of Music to play the music of their own time. It was a veritable feast of the modern.

Ondřej Kukal’s “Clarinettino” (1990) gave Noemi Sallai, a student from Hungary, a chance to show her ability to play movingly sounds of her homeland. Her part included slow and spirited sections that tested all ranges; she was ably backed up by strings that painted a landscape and moved into a dramatic section, then a pastoral. This was a satisfying piece, which balanced the clarinet’s solo work with the strings.

John Halle introduced his work “Sphere[’]s” (2002) as a homage to Thelonious Monk.  The tempos are Monkish, “crazy, but the centripetal forces of those tunes ties the whole together,” say the program notes.  But, and this has yet to be explained, the piece was written for string quartet, perhaps the least jazzy of instrumental groups. Violinists Fang Xi Liu and Reina Murooka, Rosemary Nelis on viola and Stanley Moore on cello played this piece as if it were easy.  But it isn’t. Each instrument plays different lines that seldom meld; the timing is exact and the beat varies; the rhythms are ever changing. We learned that the same group is playing Haydn quartets.  They are getting a rounded experience.

José Agustin Sánchez’s “Lazos Macabros” (2011, rev. 2012) was a highlight of the afternoon.  It is by a Venezuelan, and it was a world premiere. It was written for percussion and horn. Four percussionists led by Amy Garapic manned a marimba and a xylophone and an array of drums, while Szilard Molnar stood by a cow horn and blasted a forlorn long note. The underlying theme of this piece is South American, with references to the Incas, but not painfully so; the rhythms were ever changing, there was little repetition; there was a feeling of spontaneity and lightheartedness despite the macabre title. There was a fine solo on a tambourine. Now, how often does that happen?

George Tsontakis was on hand as a teacher and composer to introduce “Gymnopedies” (2007), a piece based on vase paintings of male gymnasts performing elegant movements.  That they were nude and sensual was relevant. The music came in four parts named “Magical,” “Cascades,” “Glistening” and “Bratty.” We can imagine the bodies on a vase coming to life, athletic, lithe, glistening, self-aware and muscular; such was the music. It was lithely performed by an octet; one instrument often played off against another in a kind of duet of contrasts, just as one athlete might play off against the one just preceding him. This was a carefully executed piece performed by players who were at home in the music.

An interlude of sorts gave the vocal arts group a chance to introduce two new members—Devony Smith, a striking soprano in a brilliant red dress, and Vincent Festa, a tenor. Devony sang a Kurt Weill piece, “Lonely House”; Vincent sang Menotti’s “Steal me sweet thief”; and they joined in a duet, “Oh, Happy We” from Bernstein’s Candide. It was romantic, Broadway, and sounded so old fashioned compared with what we had just been hearing. It was a pleasure to be back.

The final piece, by David Lang of “Bang on a Can” fame, was an extended work in which a continuous, incessant thumping on a base drum was supposed to represent “a cheap and gritty protest” that emanates from druggies who suffer continuing pain. We got the pain part, thinking that if this thing goes on much longer, Amnesty International will get themselves involved. An electrified solo cello was counterpoised against an array of percussion and allied strings; the solo line was probably good, but we couldn’t tell for the thumping.

In all, it was an exposure to the modern that was well played, well produced and well received. We can hope that the contemporary will soon become part of the core curriculum, and that more of this music will show up in concert hall on a regular basis.

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About the Author

Stephen Kaye

Stephen Kaye, editor and publisher, became intrigued with publishing when he heard the wheezing sounds of a flat-bed press and the clanking of the lino type machines while working on his weekly school paper towards the middle of the last century. Since then he worked on a college paper, studied and practiced law for a few decades, went into real estate, farming organic vegetables and grass-fed beef. After a few months of retirement he reverted to childhood fantasies and started The Millbrook Independent to replace the Millbrook Roundtable whose demise created a vacuum that needed filling. He can be reached at tminewsroom@gmail.com.


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