The Fromm Players at Harvard featuring the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME) and Ensemble SurPlus (SurPlus) were back at it again with the second of their two concerts on Saturday evening, April 2, at Harvard’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall. What I walked away with after two concerts and twelve “new” compositions has to be the image of those Oberlin undergraduates. In everything they played they showed full conviction, technical command, and plenty of spunk.
Five of them whipped up nail-biting excitement in Disclosure (2008) by Rebecca Saunders, who, born in 1967, was the next-youngest composer in the series. The new and old graphics notated with abundant explanatory notes that go into making Saunders’s stunning sonic sphere found breathtaking expression from CME. It can be pointed out that immediately after the last note a wildly played violin solo ended the piece, the violinist almost leapt out of her chair to howls of approval. Why did every one of the other eleven pieces have us sit and wait it out as if the musicians were statues and silence was golden (which could be so, given the price of gold these days)?
By the way, the pianist wore gloves for his performance at Harvard. I asked him why, since the only time I recalled gloves having been involved in contemporary piano music was in the Domaine Musical concerts established by Pierre Boulez back in the ’60s, when the pianist for Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke 11 donned white gloves with openings for the fingers. The theory-composition major at this concert told me that he had been told he would not be allowed to pluck the strings of the Paine Hall piano bare-fingered, lest he leave human oils behind that would be detrimental to the strings. So he bought his “medical gloves” from CVS for this performance.
The Oberlin ensemble did quite a job with Silbury Air (1977) by Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934). The composer described his signature work as a “juxtaposition and repetition of ‘static blocks’… Seen from a distance the hill [named Silbury] presents itself as an artificial but organic intruder of the landscape.” Conductor Timothy Weiss and fifteen of his CME, especially the marimba/percussionist and the brass, realized the “pulse labyrinth,” giving it its blazing flashes that crop up seemingly out of nowhere a great effect. Yet there were imbalances of orchestral strengths: too much brass brightness, while in and of itself glorious in the Balinese gamelan crossed with English industrial-sounding textures, reduced its impact and covered up the less powerful instruments.
In the pamphlet, Chaya Czernowin, curator of the Fromm Players at Harvard and Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music, asks, “All gardens are simply beautiful, aren’t they?” One would expect so. Maybe I shouldn’t have had my nose stuck in the score — a one-page graph, rather — of Fideliotrio (1987) by Alvin Lucier (b. 1931). I wanted to see how it all worked. When I spoke to the pianist wearing the gloves, I also asked him what he thought of the trio in which the pianist plays only the note, A below middle C, for twelve minutes with a violin and cello sliding toward and then away from it. “After two minutes I caught on to it,” he answered, “I began to hear the harmonics from the reiterated piano’s note.” I ask, “why not three — or even a few more — minutes. Why twelve?”
Hadavar (2008-10) by Dániel Péter Biró (b. 1969) was another yawner. Here, it took a counter-tenor, six loudspeakers, and a Harvard engineer to induce a meaningless, soporific state.
Sven Thomas Kebler, the conductor of Surplus and its pianist, soloed in …sofferte onde serene… (…serene waves suffered…) composed in 1976 by Luigi Nono. Kebler and Nono is another match made in the beautiful garden. Expressivity, beauty, drama — those expectations of traditional European music — all showed up in a phenomenally gripping and moving performance by Kebler to an accompaniment of machine re-renderings of recordings by the composer’s friend, Maurizio Pollini.
Another work of Luigi Nono, ‘Hay que caminar’ soñando, from 1989, lasted more than twenty-five minutes. Two violinists performed at five music stands placed about the hall. The longer the duet went on, the more difficult it became to keep my focus. Over and over again, tritones, the diabolus in musica as it was known in medieval time, reappeared with jabbing interjections bringing to mind Danse Macabre, A Soldier’s Tale. I should stop here.
Professor Czernowin concludes the program notes with, “I wish you an ear-provoking listening experience.” “Provoking” can cut more than one way. The hall, half-filled at the concert’s onset, saw a dwindling population after each of the two intermissions. I join with those listeners who remained to the very last note in a huge round of appreciative applause that was truly deserved by those Oberlin players.