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Mark Berger’s Dream Dances Wins Competition


“If at first you don’t succeed,”  was the motto for an unusual, albeit very enjoyable concert given at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center on September 28th, featuring the contemporary musical ensemble, Boston Musica Viva. Music Director Richard Pittman chose works by established composers as well as works from emerging ones, the latter as part of the Northeastern Regional competition of the national “Rapido!” composition contest for young composers. In a moment uncharacteristic of Musica Viva’s otherwise outstanding playing, the group struggled with a key transition while performing one of the young composer’s works. Since these performances also served as the judges’ final round of consideration,  Pittman graciously gave this work a second hearing. Additionally, so as not to prejudice the judges toward the now twice-performed work, the group decided to perform the other two works a second time as well. This gesture, though kind-hearted and generous, did create an amusing “crack” in the traditional progressive performance format.

The program opened with Peter Lieberson’s (1946-2011) Raising the Gaze, a work co-commissioned by BMV in 1988. The late composer characterized the work as “a set of brush strokes in thick, black ink,” an evocative description of this three-sectioned work. The opening section features short, forceful strokes reminiscent of the aggressive rhythmic patterns of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C. The middle section, a gentler, though still dynamic stroke, was filled with soft, noodling lines, over which the piccolo and bass clarinet executed comparatively graceful solos similar to the texture of the closing movement of Bartok’s Contrasts of 1938. The final section opens with a cacophonous mass of sound, which eventually gives way to virtuosic solos by the first violin and percussionist, executed with impressive dexterity by Gabriela Diaz and Robert Schultz, respectively.

Andy Vores described his Umberhulk as a compositional confection based on an imagined day in the life of the fictional Umberhulk, a subterranean ogre from the popular role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. The opening of Vores’s piece features an aggressive patchwork of sounds, many of which were provided by percussionist Robert Schultz — including a large box of rocks, which Schultz shifted back and forth to represent the Umberhulk’s heavy footfalls. The work closed with a chase scene, as the title character pursues an intruder back to the surface; Vores represents this sequence through the gradual layering of musical timbres and melodic fragments, as the chase slowly approaches the entrance to the cave.

Competition guidelines for the “Rapido!” composition contest were prescribed instrumentation (piano, cello, and oboe), for which after the announcement competitors had only fourteen days until submission, and the theme, based on the concept of dance (however loosely in substance or concept). All composers were present. First was Eric Segerstrom’s Indecisive Dances, divided between a tango and a pavane. The work begins in a tempestuous character followed by a chamber texture that resembles the piano quintets of Schubert and Mendelssohn, though with a much higher degree of stylization and intensity, nearly reaching a point of grotesquery. Derek Hurst’s Pas de Trois, as described by the composer, is based on the balletic “triple solo,” in which each of the three dancers solos in turn, followed by an ensemble close. Hurst’s work was dominated by jagged cascades of sound, between which the musical soloists wove virtuosic lines. Through the course of the work, melodic fragments slowly merged, emerging in full form in the closing section. The winner of the contest was Mark Berger’s Dream Dances. The opening of his work utilizes a musical figure commonly associated with the dream state — the use of contrarily-moving arpeggios. Following this, the oboe emerges as the leader of a musically pointillistic texture, as bits of consciousness emerge from within the dream. Next is a section of waltz-like music (the transition into this section was the moment whose unsuccessful execution prompted the repeated performances mentioned above), which slowly gives way to a more nightmarish duple dance, the latter eventually returning to the suspended animation of the opening as the work comes to a graceful close. After the intermission break, Berger’s piece was announced as the  winning submission.

The concert then closed with John Harbison’s song set, Mirabai Songs (1982-1983), featuring mezzo-soprano Krista River. This work is a setting of 16th -century ecstatic poetry, based on the story of Mirabai, a woman who refused to perish on her husband’s funeral pyre; the subterranean fervor of the texts was very effectively represented by Rivers’s dark vocal timbre and engaging performance style. Harbison’s juxtaposition of aggressive, fast-moving textures and slower-moving sections, the latter laden with harmonic suspensions, is reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s song set, Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Harbison’s work features a number of distinct textures as well, many of which create a recitative-like style; these features include long-held, rolled orchestral chords, the use of uneven, speech-like rhythms, and a “levitating” accompanimental texture. As in many of Beethoven’s late works, Harbison revisits several of the musical styles from earlier sections near the end of the set, preparing for the finale’s peaceful repose.

Joel Schwindt is a PhD candidate in Musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

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