IN: Reviews

Larry Bell: New Piano Music


Composer Larry Bell

Berk Hall at Berklee College of Music, on Boylston Street, is a small up-to-date space with stage lighting and recording platform, newly equipped with a new Fazioli grand, and ideal for informal studio performance, such as we heard last night from prize winning composer Larry Bell and four pianists playing pieces that he had written for them.

The composer himself began with his single-movement Sonata No. 7, “Southern Meditations,” in dreamy improvisatory style, with a low-register dominant-ninth pedal on C that ebbed and flowed, with upper-register tinkly chromatics like a soft wind chime; it modulated from time to time with a descending cascade of parallel triads. After a while came a marchlike burst of A major, and then a rapid da capo cooldown. Very meditative withal, it reminded one of Southern Harmony. This hinted at the three works that followed, all of them, according to the program notes, based on hymn tunes.

Bell’s Sixth Sonata’s three continuous movements, Aria – Allegretto- Toccata” came across with fine execution from Maja Tremiszewska, from the Opera Department. The arioso quality rang through the whole piece, even in the upward-arpeggiating Toccata, when the melody shifted from above to below, right hand to left, and sometimes the arpeggios met in the middle of the keyboard ><.

Sonata No. 5, “A Landscape of Small Ruins,” a single-movement essay after a chapter by V. S. Naipaul, felt elegiac in character, even minor-mode funereal, and chordal as in some of Fauré’s songs. Jennifer Elowsky-Fox played this with stark but serious confidence.

In Carmen Rodriguez-Peralta’s assertive take, the two-movement Sonata No. 4 exhibited a number of different moods and rapidly changing textures, with considerable tonal variety, and a lively staccato that reappeared like a refrain. The second movement, “Six Variations on Thou God of Love,” set the short variations as a continuous ribbon with scales alternating with quiet counterpoint, and concluding with an added soprano solo, provided by Erin Anderson.

My Tufts University colleague John McDonald is the dedicatee of Bell’s 12 Polyrhythmic Studies, from which he selected five examples of differing metric ratios. The composer wrote about Etude no. 2: “The notation of 3: 𝝅, for instance, began as an exercise for 8th to 9th-grade students…[who] quickly figured out that could be expressed as 22/7 and 3 as 21/7. Thus 3: 𝝅 is 21:22 sevenths.” I got a look at the score, with its standard notation, based on powers of 2, wrenched into different ratios and irrational multiples; but the sound of all of these was very good, short figures and long, and crunchy polychords and clusters, even if I couldn’t hear the precise ratios asked for. Messiaen demanded things like these in his scores but more insistently and arrogantly. (I remembered that 𝝅, considered as 22/7, is accurate within about 5%; but considered as 355/113 it is accurate within 0.00002 %, or maybe one-tenth millisecond per minute, give or take a few.) In a spirited performance, McDonald coped elegantly with these problems as though they did not exist.

Since I last heard the big concert of his 24 Preludes a Fugues a few years ago, it’s my impressions that in these comfortably tonal pieces Bell’s has enriched his sense of harmony with more variety, and not just an easygoing Stravinskyan pandiatonicism but also a naturally American folk style, similar to Copland’s. Most audiences will have no trouble with his genial idiom, and I certainly enjoyed the growth, well served and well remarked upon by the fingers of several colleagues and friends.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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