in: Reviews

September 10, 2012

Three Pieces for Kunimoto’s Vibraphone


Up-and-coming percussionist Masako Kunimoto participated in a concert of music for vibraphone, cello, and piano that was a testament to her artistic finesse. It included three pieces composed especially for her, rounded out by Martin Bresnick’s Songs of the Mouse People. The concert, on September 8th, at Lily Pad Gallery, was part of the Equilibrium Concert Series.

Despite the rainy afternoon, the concert got off to a rather dry start with John Macdonald’s The First Eight  for Kunimoto on vibraphone. MacDonald himself was the pianist, and Bryan Hayslett the cellist. The title of the piece refers to eight phrases, which are then re-interpreted seven times, creating eight sections of eight phrases each. These generative phrases are of variable length and range from moody and lyrical, to jazzy and animated, to abstract and stoic. Among MacDonald’s well-balanced use of instruments, I delighted most in the moments in which Kunimoto’s precise and sensitive performance created a luminous cloud from which the cello and piano material could gracefully emerge. Nevertheless, this piece came off as rather restrained and more intellectual than emotional.

Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s Iris made use of the trio to evoke the form of the eponymous flower. In the first section, which represented the plant’s stem, a strong initial cello double stop backed by piano created space for a vibraphone flourish that was eventually traded to the piano. This theme was contrasted by a tutti tremolo that gave the piece a sense of breadth. Throughout these changes, the players’ expression was emphatic yet sensitive, and Kunimoto in particular had more of an opportunity to display not only precision, but passion. The second section, representing the flower, was built on a repeated note motif appearing first in the piano and then in the cello. Although Bryan Hayslett seemed to be off to a shaky start in the first piece, he had fully settled into Iris and achieved a warm tone and perfect integration with the ensemble. Iris wrapped up with a lovely, melancholy cello melody supported by equally lovely vibraphone and piano arpeggios.

Rather than having an intermission, Justin Barish’s Six Mime Pieces, performed by Marti Epstein on piano, provided a pleasing palate cleanser.  These miniatures ranged from contemplative to restless. Although all six bore the modernistic hallmarks of pointillism, registral striation, and biting harmony, the third piece, “Torn Up” was the most disjunct and abstract, and I wondered if a less dry and more playful attitude would have been more effective.  The remaining three pieces, however, were completely satisfying with their registral separation and attractive melodies. Epstein’s performance was exquisitely intimate and personal, with just the right amount of understatement for such seemingly private music.

Epstein also wrote a solo tam-tam piece for Kunimoto. Tam makes use of very minimal sonic materials: soft striking and scraping of the instrument along with Kunimoto’s clear voice. Epsteins’s beautiful juxtaposition of these subtle sounds was perfectly proportioned and seemed to elucidate a very personal relationship between performer and instrument. Kunimoto’s performance was equally beautiful, each attack distinct yet balanced with what preceded and what followed. However, perhaps Tam was too still; it left me longing for a disturbance in the flow of sound.

Kunimoto ended her program with Martin Bresnick’s vibraphone and cello piece Songs of the Mouse People. Alternating between humor and lament, with some mouse-like squeaking in the cello, Bresnick’s piece and Hayslett and Kunimoto’s enthusiastic performance made a fine finale to the evening. Here Hayslett really had a chance to shine, from his surprisingly pretty rendering of the squeaky high register effects to his no-holds-barred handling of a dramatic arpeggiated passage near the end. Kunimoto likewise played a multi-linear solo passage with animated articulation and sensitive phrasing. As the piece wrapped up with a section built on repeated notes, Kunimoto made the vibraphone tones sparkle.

Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new-music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series.

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