It is a good idea to remind oneself from time to time that every musical composition was once “modern music.” Audiences hearing a work by a Josquin, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven or Stravinsky for the first time, or any of the music we now know so well and enjoy so often, might have responded quite differently than we do today. They could have applauded politely, roared their approval or disapproval, or even staged a full-scale riot.
There were no riots at the Musica Viva concert “All-American Grooves” on September 25 at the Tsai Performance Center, but there was plenty of approval — and for good reason. The performances were first-rate. Music Director Richard Pittman led his superb ensemble — Ann Bobo (Flute), William Kirkley (Clarinet), Robert Schulz (Percussion), Geoffrey Burleson (Piano), Bayla Keyes (Violin), Jan Müller-Szeraws (Cello) and Pamela Dellal (Mezzo- soprano) — with skill and understanding, and his players responded in kind, with virtuosity, commitment and musical mastery.
The program opened with Michael Gandolfi’s Grooved Surfaces, a wonderful piece written by this gifted composer in 1996. As the program notes described, and as Gandolfi amplified in his engaging pre-performance comments, this work “…is the result of my study of a type of a particular type of Ghanaian music known as ‘Adowa.’ I utilized a typical Adowa drum-ensemble rhythm in which two instruments (here, the pizzicato ‘cello and left-hand piano) mimic the role of the shakes (the drum-ensemble instrument that provides a steady rhythmical underpinning).” The first movement, Frame Shifting, was mesmerizing in its use of shape shifting repetition. Movement II, Pitching Rotation, which “is based on a pentatonic scale that slowly rotates through all transpositions, several times, until it returns to its original key and voicing,” fully exploited the minimalist textures, creating a kaleidoscope of colors. The energetic Flipsides that concluded the work was played brilliantly by the ensemble, pianist Geoffrey Burleson dispatching the complicated piano part with aplomb.
The Seven Ages by the renowned composer John Harbison followed. Written in 2009 and receiving its first Boston performance at this concert, the work is based on six poems by Louise Glück that are at the same time magnificent, terrifying, depressing and bittersweet. I share Harbison’s opinion that the poet’s “words are clear, strongly placed, deeply felt, vivid—all the things needed to suggest rhythm, melody, and a kind of ‘symphonic’ structure.” There were many nice touches. One of the best songs, the fifth, “Summer Night,” used a jaunty rhythm and vivid instrumental colors that might have mirrored the poet’s conflicting emotions: “So many urgent journeys conceived on summer nights…The tickets never bought, the letters never stamped…life, in a sense, never completely lived…Why should my poems not imitate my life?” Pamela Dellal sang all with a rich mezzo-soprano, excellent diction and a complete understanding of the words, creating a performance that was indeed vivid and deeply felt. The only caveat is that her placement on stage, essentially inside the ensemble and not in front, sometimes caused her to be overbalanced by the instruments.
The second half opened with a world premier, Richard Cornell’s Images (2009). Cornell tells us that in the first movement – The warring of sparrows –he was “…mimicking a large class of young sparrows that have taken over the neighborhood near my studio…their collective chattering, fluttering, and occasional screaming.” How do you evoke an image of dueling sparrows? The opening duet between piano and drums was particularly effective. Movement II – Star laden sky—is, according to Cornell, an example of his “research into chromaticism.” Unfortunately, it came off just like that: an unattractive research exercise, without engaging the listener. On the other hand, maybe this just means that war will always be more interesting than peaceful reflection.
Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo (1982/83) concluded the program. What more can be said about this iconic composer, a man who has written more than 40 works during the past decade alone (between ages of 90 and 100), and who has given us numerous masterpieces for almost a century. One of these, the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, is a work for which I am personally grateful. Composed 57 years ago, it has become a staple of the harpsichordist’s repertory (including mine), and a perennial audience favorite. So is the Triple Duo, a “…free fantasy [that] involves various contrasts, conflicts and reconciliations between the three duos.”
Only time will tell which of the works on this program will be considered an old chestnut in 50 years. Viva Musica Viva for giving us the opportunity to hear them first.