in: Reviews

August 7, 2011

Wellesley’s Odd Combination, Some Winners

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The final concert held at Wellesley College on August 6 combined the forces of two summer entities — the 67th Composers Conference and the Chamber Music Center. The results of this joint concert were odd, and although many of the same people played in the various pieces, personnel also changed from piece to piece. Founded in 1945, The Composers Conference awards ten two-week fellowships to composers who are “establishing their careers.” Since 1986, the members of the Chamber Music Center have commissioned a composer to write a work for amateur musicians, and this year’s commissioned composer was Peter Van Zandt Lane, whom many will recognize as a long-time BMInt contributor. The audience was made up largely of fellow students, many of whom left at intermission. One supposes their friends’ pieces had already been played, although one more remained after the long intermission. People seemed unusually animated before the start of the concert; everyone seemed to know one another, and, like the last night of summer camp, everyone dressed very informally.

A concert featuring two well known Romantic masterpieces and a Baroque chamber music charmer interspersed with three new works makes for odd programming indeed. The concert opened with Schumann’s lovely Three Romances, Op. 94, performed by violinist Miranda Cuckson and the estimable pianist Christopher Oldfather. Why, with the great oboist Peggy Pearson on the premises, this was performed on violin I don’t attempt to understand. It is much better on oboe, its intended instrument.

Convergence by Benjamin Irwin is a composition for nineteen players. In his program notes, Irwin explained, “the layering and convergence strategies used in this piece were inspired by the tihai concept used in Indian classical music. A tihai involves a musical pattern that repeats three times at the end of a section (or piece)…. Convergence is characterized by the layering and alternation of contrasting musical structures that are (at least) periodic; these structures converge at ‘meeting points’ that end large sections of the piece.” This is a lot of information to synthesize before hearing the piece. Lots of brass, lots of jazziness and string glisses. People seemed to like this work, as the composer took his bows on stage (in a light brown T-shirt). I think it may be one of those pieces that benefits from a second hearing, right after the first, or after intermission, to take in his ideas properly.

Concert Royal in G Major by François Couperin received a lovely performance by Peggy Pearson, oboe, Alex Woods, violin, Edward Burns, bassoon, Chris Gross, cello and Christopher Oldfather, harpsichord. Individual and ensemble playing was superb here; it was, oddly, tried-and-true chamber music hit of the evening, for this listener at least.

Seven Rants by Peter Van Zandt Lane for piano and woodwind quintet received an excellent performance, starting with pianist Catharine O’Rourke. Seven Rants is a series of charming miniatures for these wind instruments, each getting a mini-concerto in a movement or “rant” surrounded by a first and last movement that are palindromes, both rhythmically and pitch-wise. The flutist, Carol Vater, moved over to stroke the piano’s inner strings (in one direction) during the bassoon and horn solo. She did such a nice job that for once, I didn’t find this an obnoxious cliché. The clarinet solo from Lori Mondragon was charmingly jazzy. All in all, a lovely, accessible piece.

Jorge Sad Levi’s piece, Dissolution of the Salt Stone, set out to transpose the notion of filtering, “or subtractive synthesis” to instrumental writing, applying it to the evolution of pitch and rhythm. There was more inside-the-piano strumming, screechy sounds that would let up to allow a solo oboe or violin to sound, briefly. Scored for most of the same players as “Convergence,” this piece looked more intriguing on the page than it sounded on the stage. On the other hand, maybe there are people out there who enjoy a good ear-splitting violin.

It’s hard to imagine an audience not at a festival like this who would appreciate fully the juxtaposition of Brahms with the previous piece, but the great Quintet for Piano and Strings came next. Most people who love chamber music have their favorite (professional) groups — and pianists — playing this piece in their memories (or their IPods). So it’s hard for a young pick-up group to make an impression. Blair McMillen, pianist shared the stage with Owen Dalby and Sarah Crocker, violin, Liuh-Wen Ting, Viola, and Chris Gross, cello. The first movement moved at a very fast clip, as did the third movement, which was equally lively and exciting. The performance overall worked; there was not a dull moment. The player who left a deep impression was extroverted violinist Dalby, who played brilliantly and chops-wise, seemed to have all but left the other players in the dust. I’ll be curious where he — and the three composers — go after this. Stay tuned.

 Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.
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2 Comments

  1. The composer fellows who appeared to leave at intermission actually just moved to the upstairs balcony. They were present for the second half of the concert.

    Comment by Ben Irwin — August 8, 2011 at 3:37 pm

  2. It WAS the last night of summer camp for those of us adult amateur musicians who had just spent a glorious week playing chamber music and being coached by the professional musicians you heard on stage. It bears repeating that the musicians performing in 7 Rants were all amateurs.

    Comment by Mary Lincoln — August 13, 2011 at 7:37 am

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