Five pieces by four composers
Kevin Stalheim's group plays music by Reich, Haas, Clyne and Greenstein at Marcus Center Vogel Hall.
Five chamber pieces with little in common opened Present Music‘s season Saturday evening.
Anna Clyne, a London native currently based in Chicago, contributed Blush (2007) and Fits + Starts (2003). Clyne mixed electronic and pre-recorded instrumental sounds with live play in both. And while her sound world is unmistakably post-modern, her sensibility is Romantic. Passion rules here.
Listening to Blush was like tumbling into someone else’s dream. The dream might be exotic and arbitrary, but it somehow makes sense if you’re in it. Clyne set this solo cantata for baritone to Julio Monterrey’s elliptical lines: A sickness I endure. Willingly infected./Heart’s armored all fall. Scattered crescendos./Serene and tender nights. Choruses bludgeon.
And so on. The words make little sense, but taken together and combined with exquisitely expressive and startlingly violent sounds from a nine-piece ensemble and electronics — the sound of breaking glass intrudes often — Clyne creates a sense of a love too hot to handle. Soothing and sensuous major ninths yield sensual bliss. Piercing highs, some live and some like electronic feedback noise, bring on the pain. Again, the music is essentially tonal, and again, it sounds intuitive and collaged. And again, the emotional force never relents. That force, rather than some clear formal plan, is the backbone of this music. Or maybe I should say its beating heart. Conductor Kevin Stalheim and baritone Kurt Ollmann, too, held the piece together, with sure-footed decisions at each of the many interpretive decisions. Ollmann brought just the right touch of dreamy distraction to Clyne’s gorgeous, lyrical lines. He was in superb voice, and demonstrated exceptional understanding of how to sing — and breathe — into a microphone.
I could not tell what I was supposed to hear in Georg Friedrich Haas’ Tria ex uno (2001), which opened the program. Haas quotes the opening trio section, apparently note for note, from Josquin Des Prez’s Agnus Dei II from the Missa l’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales. That’s about a minute and a half for violin, cello and bass clarinet. The second movement, of about the same duration, added flute, piano and percussion. An ominous timpani roll at the outset added drama, and some of the voices seemed displaced, as if Haas had slid one or two of Josquin’s lines to the left or right. Everything changed in the lengthy third movement. The harmony became much denser. Much of it was microtonal: Dense, acidic chords comprising many sounds that usually lurk unheard in the cracks between piano keys. Microtones also accounted for the altered scales that gave the melodies a vaguely Middle Eastern cast. That’s all I heard, and frankly, it wasn’t enough to seize my interest. I had to work at staying engaged, and didn’t always succeed.
Steve Reich’s 2×5 (2009) harks back to such early, West African-influence works as Clapping Music. 2×5 is for double rock band: two electric guitars, electric bass, drum set and piano, and a second band either recorded or live (recorded in this case). Rhythm is the main thing, with all manner of layering and phase relationships at work among the live players and between them and the recording. A brief, identifiable cell of syncopated rhythm permeated the piece and gave it coherence. Clapping Music has all that, but not rhythms rendered in chiming electric guitar chords.
Bits of it recalled Take 5, the Dave Brubeck cool-jazz classic from the mid-century. Other parts felt more jazz-rock, and still others were vintage Minimalism. This piece has regions, and Reich wrote intriguing transitions to take us from one to the next. 2×5 is a journey, but it has no specific destination, no climax. Enjoy the passing soundscape.
Judd Greenstein’s Change, for electric guitar, piano, bass clarinet and flute, is avant-garde music at its happiest and wittiest. Like Reich, Greenstein built around a key rhythmic idea, his with a beguiling calypso lilt. But Greenstein is not so relentless about it as Reich. Melodic profile is just as important rhythm to Greenstein, and his rhythms play out in antic, disjunct gestures. They accumulate into twittering machines that must be devilishly difficult to assemble but fall upon the ear as effortless merry amusement. And I’m all for that.
The personnel, in addition to those mentioned above, played very well throughout. They were: Marie Sander, flute; Bill Helmers, clarinet; Greg Flint, horn; Eric Segnitz, violin and electric guitar; Erin Pipal, viola; Adrien Zitoun, cello; Dan Armstrong, bass; Terry Smirl, percussion; Ross LaFleur, electric guitar; Cory Smythe, piano; Kevin Stalheim, conductor; Martin Butorac, electronics and tech; and the MYSO Calypso Steel Band played outside Marcus Center Vogel Hall before everyone went indoors for the concert.
Keep track of Present Music and all of Milwaukee’s Performing Arts groups. Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s 2012-13 TCD season guide.