Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Composers Salon – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 9/2/2011

The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!
From the Seattle Composers Salon blog

COMPOSERS OF THE EVENING: Elliot Carter, Jimi Hendrix (well, okay, neither of them was actually physically present at the concert, but we did discuss them.)

One of the participants suggested that the concert was on the theme of “adding strings”, starting with the clarinet piece (no strings) through four strings of a ‘cello and a strings bass, to the strings of a grand piano.

TRIVIA QUESTION: What is the average number of strings on a grand piano?


Fist up: Three solo clarinet pieces played by the composer, Sean Osborn. These were intended as teaching pieces (“how to play the clarinet”), and thus are, for clarinet, a small sample of what Bartók’s “Mikrokosmos” is for piano. Like the Bartók, they are far more interesting (to all listeners) than their origin would tend to indicate. Titled “Moderato” and “Presto”, the first and third were melodic. The first had a folk-song feel, reminiscent of Grieg but with some surprising modulations; the third was “classical” in sound with a hint of the Copland concerto. The Second (“Freely”) was a brief atonal interlude that sounded like a free improvisation and included some microtones.

Ryan Hare’s “Quasi Improvisando”, for ‘cello (played by Ruth Boden) began with the same 5-note motif that had figured prominently in Osborn’s “Presto” (an unplanned synchronicity) but quickly went in a very different direction. If Osborn’s piece had been “easy” (in all of the connotations of that word regarding music except for the bad one, “easy listening”), this piece was “difficult” (again, in all the connotations for that word in music except for a bad one). Atonal, rough, scratchy, scrabbly, with areas for the performer to choose between alternatives, this was a hard piece to play and required impeccable technique. The title meant “As if Improvised”, and it sounded such – but also revealed a complex (half-serialist) structure reminiscent of Carter and Boulez. Someone in the audience suggested a connection to Hendrix, too; not for the last time of the evening.

John Teske followed up with another set for solo strings; this time a string bass. These were three (out of five) linked pieces, for which he didn’t give the title. The idea was to move from awkward, rough sounds into deep resonances, though he didn’t play the first two pieces so the “awkward” part wasn’t heard. The first two were melodic. A progression to the lowest open (G) string bridged into the last piece, and here came the deep resonances. Drones on the low G continued, alternating with bluesy pizzicato and a series of wailing, buzzing overtones again reminiscent of Hendrix. Having not heard the entire set of five pieces, I can’t comment on how this last section would have worked in the whole; but in this concert it had the effect of “opening up” the sound from tense, highly structured music into more expansive quasi-improvised sound – an aural counterpart of those IMAX videos where aerial views of rapidly-passing scrublands suddenly open into a vast canyon.

After the intermission, Keith Eisnenbrey, piano, played excerpts from his “24 Preludes”. These pieces are a departure for Eisenbrey; much of his other work is atonal, free improvisation, or electronic with found sounds (and objects); but these were resolutely tonal. They proceeded in the order of the Chopin Preludes: around the circle of fifths with each relative minor after its major. Influences of Chopin and Beethoven were obvious, as well as a consistent use of “American” chords based on fourths, fifths, and seconds. Sometimes the latter unexpectedly appeared in the middle or end of a more strictly “classical” cadence, providing moments of surprising clarity and beauty. Each piece had a distinctive character: there were quiet, calm nocturnes; a Bach-like chorale (its contemplative surface masking its complex structure); a nervous allegretto that kept trying (and deliberately failing) to go atonal, and a jazzy two-part invention reminiscent of Brubeck. Altogether this was a charming set of pieces (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way), continuing the tradition of the sets of preludes for piano from Chopin to Shostakovich and several modern Northwest composers.

The last piece went back to “no strings”. This was a wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon) by Paul Gillispie. (I didn’t get all the names of the performers, though I recognized two of them, and the composer conducted.) As the Eisenbrey piece was a continuation of the solo piano tradition, this was a continuation of the quintet tradition. It was very complex music, again with suggestions of Elliot Carter. Its (half)-serialist approach and (intentional) lack of color variations made it much less approachable than the other pieces in the concert, but this was not a minus. I simply allowed myself to slip into its scintillating cascades and scatters, and soon found myself not needing the more obvious signposts that the other pieces had had. Only the most tightly crafted atonal pieces are able to do this without obvious differences in mood or timbre, and without requiring a second listening. The group only played three out of the four movements in the complete piece, and it was more than twelve minutes (so the complete Quintet might have been approaching twenty) – but the time passed quickly and enjoyably.

Altogether this was a longer than usual Composers’ Salon (usually they’re a little too short anyway, at least to my ear) and very strong musically. I’m waiting for the next one in November.


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