Tom Strini

Unruly Music minifest opens Downtown

By - Sep 8th, 2009 11:47 pm
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Soprano Susan Bender (UW-Stevens Point photo)

Soprano Susan Bender (UW-Stevens Point photo)

Whoops, clucks, whispers, giggles, pops, bits of monologue in assorted languages, gargling and tones generated while inhaling butted against more conventional sorts of vocal virtuosity in Georges Aperghis’ “Recitation” (1978) and John Cage’s “Aria” (1958).

Too often, such pieces sound like grim avant-garde manifestoes. Tuesday night, soprano Susan Bender applied commanding technique, canny phrasing and sly wit to them and exposed their true nature. This is light music, brilliant music, zany music, more akin in spirit to Bernstein’s “Glitter and Be Gay” than to Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” though the sonic material is closer to “Pierrot.” Bender’s wonderfully wry, dry stage presence also helped to deliver the message.

The phrasing is the hard part. These composers’ graphic notations lack notes and bar lines, for the most part. The singer must interpret arcane symbols and ferret out the momentum and arc of the strings of sonic events. Bender made us hear swings of pendulous energy. As she sings it, the babble coheres into episodes that gather energy and go places.

She also helped us hear the form in “Recitations.” Some of the 10 sections are related by material. Bender sang (intoned? gurgled? chanted? rasped?) the relevant bits with such emphasis and clarity that we recalled them instantly when they recurred. These familiar sounds flashed like beacons and helped us to locate ourselves within a potentially bewildering form.

Bender combined “Aria” with Cage’s “Fontana Mix,” a tape piece also from 1958. The two pieces are meant to interact randomly and perhaps generate magical, serendipitous synergies, which they did.

Bender is just up the road, on the faculty at UW-Stevens Point. Her resume indicates that she is a remarkably versatile singer and actress. I hope we’ll see and hear more of her in Milwaukee.

Bender’s tour-de-force opened a three-night mini-festival presented by UWM’s music department and organized by Chris Burns. I have no idea why they’re putting it on Downtown, away from the natural audience base at the university, in the charmless Vogel Hall of the Marcus Center, but they are.

Coming 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 9): The Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra

Coming 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 10): C2, that is, flutist Lisa Cella and cellist Franklin Cox, playing music by Cox, Burns, Saariaho, Carter and other cool people.

Tickets are $15 ($12 seniors, $7 students) at the Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206. Trust me; plenty will be available at the door.

Categories: Classical, Culture Desk

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