The Rockport Chamber Music Festival hosted a concert of composer/clarinetist Evan Ziporyn’s music on Thursday evening, July 7. Ziporyn, who is widely known as the long-time clarinetist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, was joined by his Bang on a Can comrades, violinist Todd Reynolds, cellist Ashley Bathgate, and pianist Vicky Chow. This was my first time visiting the relatively new Shalin Liu performance center, which, with its floor-to-ceiling windows along the back of the stage, is unquestionably one of the most beautiful concert venues I’ve ever seen. It sounds pretty good, too. Watching the colors of the sky evolve into dusk over the course of a concert is an experience anyone can appreciate.
The four pieces performed offered a good snapshot of Ziporyn’s compositional style, which although heavily influenced by Minimalism, tend to favor constant development in the context of block structures, driving rhythms, and definitely virtuosic demands of the performers. Hive, In Bounds, and Typical Music (the last three pieces on the program) all shared this unique mix of Post-Minimalist and Totalist (a response to minimalism) leanings, and received the kind of spot-on performances you can only get with abundant collaboration time spent with the composer.
The opening performance, Tsmindao Gmerto (for solo bass clarinet) stood out stylistically from the others. After a congenial introduction by the composer, he described the piece as an attempt to mimic the sounds of a large group of men singing Georgian chant with a single bass clarinet. The music that followed was a string of flowing, chant-like phrases composed of multi-phonics and trills, jittering on the surface, but moving slowly through evocative pre-tonal harmonies. I had the opportunity to hear the piece performed a few years ago in a large, stone chapel in Miami, and must say the piece benefits from a large, reverberant space to help blend together the sounds of the performer vocalizing while playing (one of a few methods of achieving multi-phonics on the clarinet). In this performance space, the inner parts were more in the foreground, which (based on my observations of nearby listeners) appeared to be too discordant for some to enjoy. Personally, I find the piece’s arching phrases of dense and varying timbres to be quite beautiful.
Pianist Vicky Chow completely won over the audience with her vigorous and animated performance of In Bounds. She danced playfully through the piece, despite its severe difficulty; one only had to see the subtle fear in the page-turner’s eyes as he worked to keep up with the myriad of notes and pages that flew by as the Chow’s hands moved at an unfathomable pace.
Hive, for four clarinets (two B-flat and two bass) quartet featured Ziporyn on bass clarinet, joined by fellow clarinetists Rane Moore, Eran Egozy, and Alicia Lee. Some of the pieces materials are derived from Tsmindao Gmerto, but as part of a much more eclectic array of other styles. The narrative of the piece, as Ziporyn explained, was inspired by his observations of bees (he recently has taken on the hobby of beekeeping). Rapidly moving lines bounce back and fourth between the players, who effectively made clear the interactive and often antiphonal nature of the piece. The closing piece, Typical Music for piano trio, takes some of the stylistic eclecticism of Hive and truly runs away with it. Chow returned, joined by violinist Todd Reynolds and Ashley Bathgate for a riveting performance. Overall the piece made a positive impact, though I must admit I found some of the moments where the players drifted into jazz/blues material to be rather dry. The final movement contained some very exciting ideas. Included in this movement was a very exposed moment of paradiddle rhythms, which I couldn’t help but think was a shout out to the composer’s long-time friend and colleague, Steve Reich (referencing Different Trains).
The Rockport Chamber Music Festival undoubtedly deserves commendation for programming an entire concert dedicated to a living composer. While most of the programming this summer at the Shalin Liu falls into the ultra-traditional category, hopefully programs like these will prove popular among their subscribers and rouse more programming of contemporary music in the future.
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