in: Reviews

March 14, 2012

In Front of My Eyes: Celebrating T. J. Anderson

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John McDonald, T. J. Anderson and Mark DeVoto in 2003 (BMInt staff photo)

T. J. Anderson was for years a beloved professor at Tufts University, where he brought the Music Department into the modern era. Now 83 and retired from Tufts since 1990, he returned to Medford for a symposium, a reception, and a concert for himself and his friends. His successor on the Tufts composition faculty, John McDonald, led off an assembly of T. J.’s music and that of his friends in Distler Performance Hall at the Granoff Music Center at Tufts on Monday evening. T. J.’s Boogie-Woogie Fantasy, composed in 1997, is a sectional piano solo with explosive gestures alternating with classical boogie-woogie patterns — dotted rhythms, arpeggiated bass octaves in eight-bar segments. This was a long piece, but one that connects its episodes well, and McDonald played it with great skill and expression.

After T. J. retired from Tufts he moved to Chapel Hill in North Carolina, soon becoming connected with nearby Duke University in Durham. His colleague there, Stephen Jaffe, was on hand for two performances. Jaffe’s Designs II, composed 2010-2011, is in two movements, 23 minutes long, for clarinet, guitar, and percussion. The first movement, Teneramente, is episodic, lyrical, and mostly with prominent solos for the clarinet, including some expressively bent pitches. The accompaniment is light, but the combination of amplified acoustic guitar with marimba is effective. The second movement, Vivo e ruvido, changed the clarinet to a bass clarinet and the guitar to an electric guitar, and featured short melodic figures with a lot of relentlessly repeated notes, often in jazzy bursts that focused my attention throughout. The BeatCity Ensemble, with Amy Advocat (clarinets), David Fabris (guitars), and Robert Schulz (marimba, vibes, glock, woodblocks, tomtom, tambourine, cabaça, and much else), kept up the driving textures fearlessly and expressively. I especially liked the high clarinet cantilena that wasn’t shrill, and the last chord, ending with a surprising note on the triangle.

Paul Siskind, a former student of T. J. at Tufts, came for his Andere Klänge (other sounds), composed in 2001. John McDonald confidently handled the extensive inside-the-piano plucking and scraping, which alternated with whole-tone and diatonic filigrees on the keyboard. This built to a big upward-sweeping treble climax that was answered by a comical bass-register cluster. T. J.’s own In memoriam Gerald Gill, a short, hushed solo, paid a deeply moving tribute to another Tufts colleague, a much-loved member of the History Department who died five years ago. The piece began with two haunting bass-register Gs.

After the intermission, we heard a vibraphone solo, Paul Siskind’s Suite: 75 for T. J., in four short movements. Like Andere Klänge, this attractive work inclines to the whole-tone scale, with the third piece ending on an augmented triad and the fourth on a French sixth. The motor remained off throughout, and Robert Schulz shifted from soft mallets to hard for the fourth piece.

T. J. himself was honored with the premiere performance of his Cornerstones, composed last year on five poems by the Vermont poet Elye Alexander. These ranged over a variety of moods, with the first poem/song, “Cedar,” repeating a two-bar melodic figure; the second, “Spider-Silk Riddle,” a three-note motive; the third, “The Flying Squirrel” with chattering repeated notes and a piano cadenza in between; and the last poem/song, “Dancing With Her,” with a slow and sad waltz. Even more ineffably sad were the simple chords accompanying the fourth and shortest poem, “Dovey Junction.” Louise Toppin sang, and John McDonald accompanied, with rich expression and loving care. (For those who are traveling south next week, Toppin will host a 20th-anniversary festival in Chapel Hill, honoring two decades of VIDEMUS, a new-music group founded at Tufts by Vivian Taylor and loyally supported by T. J.)

Stephen Jaffe’s String Quartet no. 2, in five movements, expertly played by the Borromeo Quartet, concluded the concert. The movements have whimsical titles that accurately reflect the styles. “Scherzino chickadee” had no chickadee figures that I could discern, but it had harmonics and sul ponticello that sounded well. “Homage to the breath (syrinx)” was particularly eloquent, with slow, acerbic but diatonic sostenuto chords supporting an expressive upper melody. I didn’t hear any reference to Debussy, either, but maybe this was a bird piece too, because the syrinx is the singing organ in most songbirds. “Push me pull you” began with false starts but soon branched out into rapid triplets, sometimes frantically accompanied by strummed pizzicato chords alternating between different instruments. The composer told me that he had gone to some expense to have parts copied for this quartet, only to find that the players preferred to play from his “scribbled” full score displayed on four Apple notebook computers (in fact, I thought the score was very neatly written).

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press). His website is here.
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