“THING,” the playful title given to the New Gallery Concert Series’ final performance of the season last on April 28, was the third installment of the “Year of the Noun,” after “Person” and “Place.” Although the title of one work referred to elemental substances, overall it was not immediately clear what made this program “thingier” than any other. But no matter – it was an excellent collection of engaging works that complemented each other well, performed to the highest standards.
Sarah Bob (piano) and Aaron Trant (percussion) opened the program with lead/Platinum by Dave Hollinden, a work of two contrasting movements. The first, lead, was introspective and nocturnal, unusually restrained especially in its sparing use of a large array of percussion instruments. Opening with repetitions of a sparse melody in the piano consisting of only a few notes, the piece grew slowly to include piquant diatonic chords in a harmonic language reminiscent of Bill Evans, and later Olivier Messiaen, with occasional livelier off-kilter interjections that might have been borrowed from the palette of Thelonious Monk. Not quite minimalist in its construction, the movement brooded repeatedly over a succession of simple ideas, altering them just enough and at just the right times to avoid stasis and maintain a sense of organic growth. The second movement, Platinum, threw off all restraint and was, as the composer aptly describes it, “an extended burst of restless rhythmic energy ” full of “bright, polished surfaces; hard, crisp edges; and the clear ringing sound of metal…” Despite the contrast in affect, Platinum was also built on repeated cells that gradually altered and grew in complexity. Bob and Trant played the many tricky syncopated rhythmic-unison passages perfectly in time with one another, in a knockout performance full of exuberance and flair. That the unpitched percussion was fully the piano’s melodic equal testifies to the expert assurance both of Trant’s playing and Hollinden’s writing.
Before the performance of her composition, liquid, fragile, Marti Epstein opined that her piece would be nothing like the one it followed. Performed by Eran Egozy (clarinet), Gabriela Diaz (violin), Mark Berger (viola) and Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), it was indeed more reserved, consisting primarily of self-contained phrases separated often by long silences. Nevertheless, Epstein’s work shared with Hollinden’s a compositional strategy of intense focus on the repetition, subtle alteration, dismantling and reassembly of a few chosen musical materials; but here the process worked on phrase-length textural blocks rather than short motivic cells. A lyrical modal passage began the piece and similar material returned repeatedly, now coalescing into a unison pitch, now contrasted with pizzicati and glissandi, frequently interrupted by silences. At the restrained climax of the piece, single tones gradually built back toward the original lyrical texture, and resolved through descending lines into a series of repeated chords, returning to the harmonic sound-world of the opening, but now shorn of its arioso quality. Though the piece was not designed to give virtuoso performers a chance to shine, the players demonstrated real musicianship in their thoughtful and sympathetic shaping of this series of discrete moments into a convincing whole, sensing and conveying the complete large-scale gesture that Epstein had composed below the surface of the work.
The late Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV, by contrast, is indeed a virtuoso showpiece, but a deep and intimate one, given a gripping performance here by cellist Benjamin Schwartz. Beginning with perhaps a full minute of percussive taps on the body and fingerboard of the instrument before progressing to disconnected bowed notes punctuated by occasional left-hand pizzicati, Schwartz still locked into the long singing line at the heart of the piece, such that when full-blown keening melodies finally emerged, they felt inevitable, as though they had been there all along. In Schwartz’s hands the sequenza’s compendium of extended techniques never swerved into the realm of special effects, but remained always essential elements of the music, part of the long line.
The concert closed with the premiere of Robert Kirzinger’s Quintet (Diaz, Popper-Keizer, Schwartz, Bob and Trant), which shared with Epstein’s work a kind of episodic construction. In comparison, Kirzinger’s work was bolder in attitude and more dramatic in its contrasts, but less unified and organic as a whole. Throughout the course of the piece, Kirzinger demonstrates a fertile compositional imagination, with textures ranging from sparse isolated tones to kaleidoscopic noise, from focused microtonal beating through open vibraphone arpeggiations to fortissimo block clusters on the piano. Many of the sounds and textures were intriguing, and the transitions between them were sometimes brilliant, but overall the composition seemed less than the sum of its parts. The final gesture was emblematic in this regard: a slow crescendo is played with sticks on a detuned electric guitar, gradually building up a wall of sound that is suddenly cut off and left to reverberate in the strings of the piano. It was a stunning effect, a great sound, an interesting theatrical gesture, and a terrific way to end a piece. But what it had to do with the music that led up to it, I could not discern. Kirzinger did say in his brief talk before the performance that he had not wanted the piece to be “too reasonable and logical,” so I suspect that my pleased but puzzled reaction may have been just what he intended.
Disclosure – I am a friend of the New Gallery family, a composer who has had music performed on this series, is acquainted with all the performers and has written music for some of them.
David McMullin is a Boston-based composer whose works have been performed by major ensembles in the United States, Europe and Asia. With degrees from Yale (BA) and NYU (PhD), he teaches music theory at New England Conservatory, directs the New England chapter of the American Composers Forum, and serves on the executive board of the International Society for Contemporary Music.