The Fromm Players at Harvard featuring the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble and Ensemble SurPlus unveiled the first of their two programs entitled “Interior Gardens” on Friday evening, April 1. Their second program will also be given at Harvard’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall the following night, Saturday April 2. It’s been a few years since John Adams stood before a lectern in the very same hall delivering “The Machine in the Garden,” his view of electronics, synthesizers and such growing and growing right next to the traditional classical music culture of strings, winds, brasses, and percussion.
Works of Salvatore Sciarrino, Mark André, Morton Feldman, Josh Levine, Jonathan Harvey, and John Luther Adams exhibited the machine’s presence most often by nurturing its physiognomies onto the classical instruments. Human and machine philosophized and became audible as hybrids. Both Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) and Ensemble SurPlus (Surplus) realized the six contemporary compositions with complete understanding and conviction — and with remarkable technical skill.
CME is the winner of an award for adventurous programming from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and the American Symphony Orchestra League. Based in Freiburg, Germany, SurPlus has collaborated with the Experimental Studio of the German Radio (SWR) and with Heinz Holliger.
“Interior Gardens” aptly describes what a somewhat small gathering of new music enthusiasts, curiosity seekers, brave souls, and, I gather from the woman seated in front of me and the man seated in back of me, a number of Oberlin alumni, all had come to experience. One gentleman across the aisle, who told me he was there because the concert he had planned on attending had been cancelled, did not make it through the entire performance, which ended at the unusual hour of 10:27 by my watch. In fact, quite a few listeners left during the second intermission. Too bad!
They had to miss out on the third part of the program consisting of one piece. John Luther Adams (b. 1953) who recently taught at Oberlin, guided us through his 1998-2001 composition, The Immeasurable Space of Tone with by far the most instructive program notes in the concert pamphlet. His title is quite a playful and catchy one, too. Adams tells us that he initially imagined “floating color fields” as “monolithic music,” then as “homophonic or heterophonic,” and now as “polyphony of harmonic clouds.” It was nearly a half an hour of being enveloped in pleasing hazes, billows and vapors. An arresting naturalness issued forth from some two dozen young players of the CME conducted by Timothy Weiss in unassuming adroitness.
The first of the three-part concert kept on quiet paths with, every once in a while, a blush shooting out as in Lo Spazio inverso written in 1985 by Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947). F-sharp and G-sharp focused this space in a distant drone. SurPlus completely uncovered its highly refined surfaces making dissonances, however potentially disagreeable, as attractive as an elegant garden should be.
SurPlus gave us…zu staub… by Mark André in the place of Hadavar by Dániel Péter Biró. From what I know of the young Biró’s music, that was a relief. The change in programming afforded me the opportunity to hear a voice I had yet to hear. Several college-age listeners described the very quiet music of André as “exciting,” and its ending that was even quieter and mostly toneless, as “organic.” No two listeners hear the same piece, I suppose. I felt that The Viola in my life (2) from 1970 by Morton Feldman (1927-1986) did not come to life as it should have. Its potent aloofness pointed away toward the kind of expressiveness you’d expect from a Samuel Barber. Neither did SurPlus truly find the 12-minute piece’s overt sensuousness.
Josh Levine (b. 1959), a professor in Oberlin’s conservatory, composed his Clear Sky during 2005-2006. His preference for extremes of motion and stasis provoked a few seeds of freshness though mostly sounding as hommages to many post-Webern composers so taken with the blippie-bloopies (his, I must say were clean, well-wrought).
The louder side of contemporary music continued on with Wheel of Emptiness (1997), a big vintage piece by Jonathan Harvey (1939). Its cosmic reach, while leaving me in a poetic kind of dust, greatly impresses with its orchestral intelligence, its virtuosity, and its stick-to-it-ness.