rvw: MusicNOW - shift happens

Monday night's MusicNOW concert, presented by the CSO, continues to walk the fine line between "cool" and "important."  Let's call what the indie/hipsters are doing (in non-conformity to the old guard) cool, while anything with more substance (and longevity) is important.  The pieces on Monday nights program were mostly a deft combination of the two, making for an evening of now-centered, forward-looking music.

The evening opened with a whimper in the dark: a solo saxophone embedded in the audience starting without any preamble--keeping the audience on its collective toes.  The piece, by Edmund Campion, was called Corail (coral in French), emerged as the sparse riffs on the sax got delayed, mutated and transformed by the interactive computer program (looked like MAX?).  Not really a "piece" of music, more like a set of parameters--musical elements, computer processes--the composition is more like an exploration of an environment that, magically, ends up creating a shape.  While I found it engaging and fascinating, that may be because I was always trying to figure out how the computer program worked--turned out not to be something I could hear.  (7.6 / 11)

Second on the program was a heavily jazz-influenced ensemble piece.  I felt no prejudgement despite my storied past with Jazz at MusicNOW.  Once a booer, always a booer.  But this piece was different.  I had gotten to the concert "fashionably on time" and so had no idea who the composer was.  At first, I dreaded the thought it was Mark-Anthony, but then, I found myself liking it.  The melody, doubled in close intervals by several instruments, swirled lazily about, unpredictably punctuated by brass hits.  Once established, this texture gets layered with and interrupted by a flurry in of high notes in the percussion, piano, and winds.  While the feel was jazzy, the composition had the complexity of the classical world.  Hardly dull for a moment (possibly during some of the obligatory solos), the piece proves that a true third stream can be possible--and not suck.  (Was it just coincidence that the composer cites the meeting of the three rivers in Pittsburgh as the inspiration?)  (8.0 / 11)

Finally, after the two pieces, Mason Bates, one of the composers-in-residence, came out to talk to the first two composers about the jazz and improvisation in their work.
The middle section of the concert included two vastly different pieces: one lush, quasi-tonal and one thorny and modernist.  The former, Spell by Paola Prestini, was a nod to the minimalist currents in contemporary music that have been infiltrating film scores in the last decade or more.  In fact, Ms. Prestini had some connection to the program in composition for documentary film at Sundance, and so while her piece stood alone as a piece of concert music, I could hear film scoring somewhere in her language.  (This is often seen as a criticism in the high-brow academic world, but that's not where I live: people have said the same about my music.)  And yet, this world is very important in our contemporary landscape and has a right to be heard--as long as it doesn't dominate.  (6.2 / 9)

Fortunately between Prestini's piece and Jason Eckardt's Tangled Loops, Anna Clyne, the other composer-in-residence, came out on stage to talk to the two composers.  Without such a break, the contrast between the two pieces would have been quite a shock to the system.  Eckardt's piece was atonal free jazz soprano saxophone and aggressive punctuation by the doom metal piano with only the most tenuous connection between the two.  It worked for a long time, but I was glad there was a more subdued middle section.  But it only lasted for a moment and then couldn't resist but slide back into elements of aggro-chaos.  Well-crafted but just a little out of balance: (5.8 / 10)
The final piece on the program, Steven Mackey's Micro-Concerto for percussion and five instruments, was a tour de force for the percussionist, CSO's Cynthia Yeh.  Like most concertos, the virtuosity takes center stage and the content of the music for the orchestra (or, in this case, chamber ensemble) is not as well developed.  Mackey successfully built up interesting textures but then seemed to get distracted and let them fall apart.  But the focus was Yeh's complete mastery of time and space--using up to 3 limbs and mouth to execute intricate polyrhythms that were equally visceral as cerebral, making it seem effortless.  The final movement of the five was the most coherent and made for a good ending.  (7.2 / 12)

End Part I.

Filed under: CSO, musicnow, new music, review

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