The contemporary music ensemble ALEA III opened its 37th season at Boston University with a program dedicated to the bassoon, coordinated by and featured Boston-area bassoonist Janet Underhill, whose biography features her work as a teacher, including 10 years of managing the chamber music program at the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. As a player, she has a remarkably fluid technique and a velvety tone, and her interpretations are thoughtful, but perhaps a little conservative. This conservative quality extended to the evening’s programming. A night of “new music for bassoon” promises something that “contemporary music for the violin” or “new music for the piano” does not. The latter two just sound like normal programming. Thursday night’s concert at the Tsai promised something a bit more intriguing than usual, and delivered a few flashes of the unexpected, but was ultimately cautious and careful.
Still, there was certainly variety: the composers, for example, came from seven different countries. It was disappointing to find that of the seven selections to feature bassoon, three of them were transcriptions. The first, a single folk-influenced movement from Berklee professor Alex Kalogeras’ Music for Two Bassoons (1997), was originally written for two double basses. It was an entertaining dance, built up out of ostinatos and melodic cells, used as a curtain raiser which worked well on bassoon. An etude in clarity for bass voices, one could imagine how it could retain its heavy-footed energy even when realized by woolier sound of the double bass. Underhill was joined by Margaret Phillips in a propulsive reading.
The second work was another transcription: Cantilena (2002) by Canadian composer Owen Underhill, Janet’s brother. Originally written for cello and piano, here it was performed by Underhill with pianist Manuel Garcia-Baro. As the name suggests, Cantilena features long melodic lines with a vocal quality; the composer describes it as “almost a form of free variation.” The composition impresses for the alternating dependence and independence of the two parts. Much of the music for each instrument could be performed alone. Played together, they combined beautifully. This isn’t counterpoint – the parts may echo each another, but they don’t interlock. The effect is of two close friends talking over one another in intimate conversation. The transcription was not entirely effective. There were leaps and rapid passages in the bassoon that disturbed the texture, and which you could imagine as more idiomatic to the cello, where leaps make less of a physical demand and where string-crossing can smooth out certain figures. Garcia-Baro and Underhill gave an intimate, even introverted performance, whose understatement drew one in.
German composer Stefan Hakenberg is currently working in Darmstadt, and although that city no longer has quite the reputation it used to, you might feel some of its influence on his work Days (1996) for bassoon and bass clarinet. Written in two “Books” of five short pieces each, the work interrogates the possibilities of combination of these two instruments that inhabit the lower end of the scale. The ten pieces have evocative but inscrutable titles: What “Rome” has in common with the Italian city seems to have less to do with monuments or history than with traffic; “Aeolian” felt like it was about wind, not about the mode of the same name – but it wasn’t especially breezy. “Menuet” did have a cockeyed triple-time feel to it, and “Miniature” was especially brief. Although the material of each movement is quite different, Days has certain favored processes: bringing the instruments close together with similar material so that their very different overtones mesh and clash; or having them sing their lines in dramatically different registers. It is an exploration of contrast, both in close quarters and in extremity. There’s just a touch of dramatics as well: the last movement of the first book, “Interludes”, is played on the reeds detached from the instruments, and it is a testament to the composer and the players that the kazoo sounds that emerged inspired only brief laughter: there was actually something to listen to. In the next movement, “Poem”, Underhill walked to the back wall and played with her back to the audience briefly, then exited. “Under Fabric”, which followed, was an aria for bass clarinet (played by Diane Heffner) with Underhill playing pedal points from the wings.
The third transcription ended the first half: Preludio y Merengue (2003) for piano, bassoon and clarinet by Cuban reed player and composer Paquito D’Rivera. The program states it was originally written for Yo-Yo Ma, so one assumes the bassoon was taking the cello part. This was a noisy bit of crossover whose jazz-inflected language and rhythm was ear-catching without being distinctive. The duo relied very heavily on the piano, played with an unaccountably steely and bright tone by Garcia-Baro, the solo instruments reduced to an obbligato. All three players were playing for much of the work, making a block of sound whose appeal came from its invocation of a popular idiom, not from any particularly interesting realization of it.
The second half began with the Czech Vaclav Nelhybel’s Concert Etudes for Bassoon Quartet. Nelhybel was a post-neo-classical craftsman who had a particular affinity for winds; anyone who has played in a wind ensemble has almost certainly encountered works by him. In the Concert Etudes I hear a kind of stylistic ventriloquism, where the harmony and melody has a French tinge, but the structures are Germanic. Neither national tendency wins over, making for a well-constructed and sober chamber listening. The first movement is built up out of repeated accompaniment figures and long combined melodic lines, ending a church cadence. The second, “Canon”, starts with a figure filled with rests and syncopations, producing a gentle hocketing at the start as each voice enters, and suspenseful silences at the end as the last few notes sputter out from one player to the next. Nelhybel combines the four bassoons effortlessly, making this the one really satisfying example of bassoon composition on the program. Underhill and Phillips were joined by Hazel Malcomson and Susannah Telsey in a balanced and measured performance.
Great Britain’s David Horne wrote Aureole for bassoon and electronics in 1996, and I hope learned his lesson. Works for soloist and pre-recorded sound puts the live performer in thrall to a machine, and creates two incompatible sound worlds, as the nature of amplified sound and natural sounds are so different. The evanescent melodic fragments and stormy wooshings of the soundtrack had little to connect them to the bassoonist’s exertions, and in this particular performance the recorded sounds were far too loud, often overwhelming the bassoon. Underhill’s own even-keeled temperament seemed too reticent for the demands of this piece; perhaps a more extroverted performance would give the work some shape.
I had such high hopes for Brad Balliett’s Concerto Grody—after Vivaldi. Not only was in a world premiere by a young American composer, it was written for Underhil—and for an ensemble of eight bassoons (including a contrabassoon) and snare drum (Narissa Gogos, Devon Nelson, Reuben Stern and Sarina Wolfe joined the Nelhybel quartet, with Leigh Wilson on snare). Based extremely loosely on Vivaldi’s Concerto RV 555 for three violins and orchestra, it was in three movements: the “Allegro vivaldissimo” tossed bits of music that were identifiably Vivaldi into the air, and then let them become submerged into a wavy ocean of extended notes, trills and multiphonics. This mass of bassoon sound recalls Michael Gordon’s recent contribution Rushes, an immersive and/or infuriating work for seven bassoons goes seemingly goes on on forever, wallowing in the richness and unique sound of massed bassoons playing pulsing figures. Balliett uses similar techniques to create a deep, dark abyss which occasionally belches out chunks of the Red Priest. The third movement, “Heavy Presto Vivaldi Funk”, brings in the snare drum to liven things up, but this performance was heavy on the “Heavy” and very light on the “Presto”, and things got quite lugubrious indeed.
However, the high point of the evening, and the payoff on the concert’s promise, was the second movement, simply entitled “Aria”. A section that found something essential in the bassoon without resorting to stereotypes, it is a beautiful slow, sinuous, sometimes crooked movement for contrabassoon and bassoon ensemble. Singing under a murky cushion of massed reed sound, Margaret Phillips’ contrabassoon playing was soulful and subtly colored, big-boned and heavy and yet never awkward, calling to mind circus elephants balancing on one foot, grave and serious and sad.