May 2, 2003

If a note plays in an empty theater, does anyone care?

Sunday evening saw the third and final Contemporary Chamber Players concert for the 2003 season. Perhaps the beautiful weather kept some potential audience members outside Mandel Hall, for the dismal attendance reflected neither the quality of the music nor of the performers. The limited audience, which mainly consisted of music department faculty and grad students (mostly composers, to be more precise), was also unfortunate, for the program balanced the challenging with the accessible and might have inspired even a conservative listener to an interest in new music.

The well-chosen opener was Erkki-Sven Tueuer's Conversio for violin and piano. (Notice: this Estonian composer's last name is Tueuer, first name Erkki-Sven. Now you will never humiliate yourself like I once did by calling him Sven-Tueuer.) The work begins consonantly, the violin softly repeating a single melodic idea made unpredictable by shifting accents. Gradually the repetition becomes more insistent, and the piano adds disturbing dissonances. Violinist Simin Ganatra's approach to the opening differs from Gidon Kremer's on the excellent CD From My Home, her tone airy as opposed to the glassiness of ponticello. Her more uniform tone color did not prevent Ganatra from achieving a slow dynamic build to accompany the increasing craziness of her and pianist Amy Dissanayake's parts. Eventually, the melody degenerated into jagged atonality, and then disintegrated into nothingness. As a prelude to the music to come, the piece was perfect, a journey originating in the immediately accessible and ending in the almost baffling, leaving the listener wanting more of the latter.

The next piece on the program, Jonathan Harvey's Song Offerings, benefited from this introduction. Harvey was present at the concert, and both he and conductor Cliff Colnot said a few words before the work's performance. Colnot shared with the audience the challenge of preparing Song Offerings: it arose not only from the work's rhythmic and polyphonic complexity, but from the rapid color and texture changes and dynamic nuances calculated to express the text. He also professed a joy in performing a work free from that plague of the twentieth century, the hegemony of the sixteenth note. His comments amounted, however, to a veiled disclaimer about the outcome of this performance, and were in no way reassuring. Though heightening the audience's awareness of the instrumental activity was certainly not a bad idea--I find it particularly difficult to follow both a singer's words and their accompaniment and usually end up listening to one or the other--Colnot might have drawn our attention to the instruments without informing us of how difficult it was to pull off. Or if he wasn't secure in his success, he should have let us listen to the soprano blissfully unaware of how much was missing.

Fortunately, the performance proved that Colnot's had nothing to worry about. Song Offerings sets four poems from Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali, translated from Bengali by the poet himself, and is scored for string quartet, string bass, flute, clarinet, piano, and soprano. So much went on in the instruments to recreate the sense of an internal monologue about a woman's love, first for a man and then for a god, that I wished that soprano Tony Arnold had stood surrounded by the instruments, instead of to the side like a soloist. Except for a brief section in which Arnold hummed, turning her voice into an instrument that perfectly blended with the rest, her part seemed to be an external reference that unified the instrumental parts but existed separately from them--an impression that a rearrangement on stage might have changed. Harvey makes excellent use of tone color, and the combined sound of the instruments, while varied, was always attractive. Harvey's music is, however, challenging to listen to. His use of five-voice polyphony, a reference to religious choral tradition, when the woman's love turns to God is just one example of Song Offerings' complexity, which Colnot had not overstated. As a result of this complexity, the work's aftertaste was opposite to that of Conversio: instead of seeming to have more to say, the piece seemed to have said too much.

The second half of the program had no such dialogic issues. James Primosch based his Quartet No. 2 on a hymn tune known by the text 'Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.' Primosch nearly achieved with four string parts what Vaughan Williams achieved with ten in Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I tried to think of a work with luscious string writing that I don't like in order to prove that my enjoyment of this quartet was not solely based on the string sound. I failed.

Nonetheless, the piece is good for other reasons too. Primosch ingeniously weaves the hymn throughout while postponing its presentation in full so that one does not immediately realize why the quartet's beginning sounds so familiar. Primosch also ventures far from singable hymn into atonality. The Pacifica Quartet's polish undoubtedly played no small part in making even these potentially disjunctive sections cohesive and graspable. Their dramatic performance was the evening's highlight.

The concert concluded with piano music by Ruth Crawford Seeger. The six preludes that Jenny Lin performed conjured the image of Seeger's contemporary, Gershwin, performing at a piano on which the strings had been switched around so that entirely different pitches came out. The showy, rhythmically jazzy sections contrasted with less Gershwin-esque introspective sections. Lin performed both with the assurance and expressivity one would expect to find in a performance of romantic-era piano music. Lin finished with Piano Study in Mixed Accents, the quintessence of the sixteenth note's hegemony to which Colnot earlier referred, but not deserving of his derogatory attitude. Except for several dramatic pauses, the sixteenth notes never cease but are punctuated by "mixed accents," on varying parts of the beat. If all piano "studies" were as dazzling as this, no pianist would complain about having to play them.

In response to a question about how he does what he does, Harvey professed that a composer "must care desperately about every note" that he writes. This attitude came across in all four works Sunday evening, and while it is fortunate that a good many students of composition benefited from the concert, the music deserved to reach a wider audience. Hopefully, in the future Contemporary Chamber Players will be blessed by Chicago's more usual inhospitable weather.