in: Reviews

August 9, 2010

Moment of Magic, Problems of Balance at Monadnock

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John Ferrari on drum set and Frank Zappa’s The Black Page No. 1 for percussion solo came together for some two minutes of utter invitation. Booming unisons contrasted with refined percussion rallies. It was quite a trip — Zappa’s frighteningly difficult composition and Ferrari’s fluid moves. Through this performance, I came to realize the beauty of watching a percussionist take a solo, all the while reading from sheet music on a stand containing web upon web of rhythmic computations. This was no improvisation but a feat, and it was absolutely enticing music. Zappa’s The Black Page No. 2 brought back the sound of bands playing at wedding receptions in those cavernous halls around town, where the drums practically drown out every other instrument. In this case there was just one, a flute, played by Jessi Rosinski. The composition itself, however, was a comedown after No. 1.

“The Sound of Wild Imagining,” a three-concert series special August 7, 8 and 14 put on by Monadnock Music, took questionable turns in its first concert billed as “Forays into new and vivid sonic regions, across the Atlantic and across generations” — with the so-cute title, “No Strings Attached.” (And by the way, what do you think of idiolect? I, for one, just do not understand the recent rage over it by a growing number of today’s ensembles. I predict a short life for such fascination.) In addition, instructive talk, not unlike the kind you wouldn’t want to find in your freshman Intro to Music course at college, took up some 10 minutes, leaving the listener wondering just what musical connections were to be made among an array of vastly different pieces programmed for Saturday, August 7 at the Peterborough, NH, Town House.

The ensemble for Manuel de Falla’s sensuously French-sounding Psyché (Laura Gilbert, flute; Gerald Itzkoff, violin; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; and Stacey Shames, harp) liberated this miniature’s early modernist harmonies by transforming them into things you could almost imagine touching your skin, an enveloping atmosphere you wanted never to leave you. Brief phrases from Bagg’s warmly voiced viola came off in much the same touching way. However, Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo soprano, was miscast for Psyché (1924) as well as Claude Debussy’s Chanson de Bilitis (1900), in which recitation prevails over brief instrumental interludes. Her performances were driven by her unrelenting concentration on getting each French word right. In the 12 poems of Pierre Louys, Shammash’s cadenced delivery was not French, but English. For the line “Les feuilles sont chargées d’eau brillante” (The leaves are loaded with shining water), hers was a slow, ponderous recitation, especially of the last two words. No vowels or the French “r” ever got played out for expressive or “musical” purposes.

Edgar Varèse’s durable, metropolis-like Octandre (1923) sang humanly with Barbara LaFitte on oboe and Ron Hartounian on bassoon, and ominously with Greg Spiridopoulous on trombone. Whoops, more strings! Robert Black’s clear and expressive double bass spoke volumes in its limited appearance in Octandre. The ensemble screamed hair-raising alerts in the earlier goings of this intense, unremitting statement. Winds were sometimes covered. In the later goings, hyper playing strangled the piece’s shape by going for big impact rather than details. A final alarm sounded by Jessi Rosinki’s piccolo along with John Boden’s French horn made for a terrifically terrifying close.

Le Merle Noir of Olivier Messiaen mirrored most of the evening’s playing: moments of musical magic offset by problems in balance among the instruments, shaping wholes, and adapting to the acoustics in Peterbourgh’s Town House. The piano, too, was not up to the lush and percussive sounds you want to hear in this Frenchman’s music. Messiaen’s fun ending turned flamboyant with flutist Gilbert and pianist Randall Hodgkinson.

Without Stopping (2004), thought up by composer John Supko and employing three Discmans, bass flute, clarinet and trumpet for this performance, reminded me somewhat of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s remarkable and innovative overtone piece from the ’60s called Stimmung. Supko’s work was really an improvisation that meant little.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

1 Comment

  1. This is a priceless review- Patterson obviously has sensitive ears- a lot of the problems he heard do exist- that space is troublesome- was not intended for chamber concerts at all.
    I agree with his cavil about these ditsy reductive descriptions for music programs – it all started with malcovich in Newport, decades ago when he tried to lure ordinary tourists into chamber concerts on the basis of trendy catchy titles. He is correct- banish them now!

    Comment by virginia eskin — August 10, 2010 at 2:24 pm

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