Tom Strini
Unruly Music Opener

Percussion refined

Percussionist Greg Beyer, pianist Mabel Kwan, cellist Chris Wild play Chenary Ung, others to open a new music weekend.

By - Apr 5th, 2013 12:08 am
Chinary Ung. Photo courtesy of the University of California-San Diego.

Chinary Ung. Photo courtesy of the University of California-San Diego.

Percussion is music’s big bang, but it has an indoor voice, too. We heard it often at Thursday evening’s Unruly Music Festival opener, as percussionist Greg Beyer joined cellist Chris Wild and pianist Mabel Kwan in an evening of chamber works involving things you hit. Or scrape. Or lightly tap.

Cinnabar Heart (2009) and Spiral 1 (1987), both by Cambodian-born Chinary Ung, opened and closed the concert. Beyer, solo in Cinnabar, now and then sang dreamily in free-floating syllables as his soft mallets coaxed from his marimba gestures and harmonies as ephemeral and perfumed as incense smoke.

Spiral, at about 14 minutes the longest work on this relatively brief program, required all three performers. Nothing repeats in this piece and it doesn’t exactly develop, but it does have regions of distinct activity: atom-smashing, for example, when all three players hit their notes hard, to fuse a new sonic element. Other episodes feature Impressionistic chords beneath and lyric cello melodies; inflected pentatonic tunes suggesting Cambodian tradition; stretches of suspenseful, herky-jerky rhythm; quiet, low glissandi, suggesting the doppler effect of a truck fading into the distance; bits of chaotic tumult; and stretches of driving momentum. Subtle transitions connect these bits, which we hear as charms on a bracelet. The episodes recur, not verbatim but in spirit.

Over the course of the program, Kwan’s piano and Wild’s cello produced unconventional sounds akin to percussion. In Claude Vivier’s 1975 Piece for Cello and Piano, the two exchanged and overlapped tremolos over wide intervals in various ranges. These distant earth tremors gave way to groans and scrapings emanating from the cello and the innards of the piano. These noises somehow congealed into a suave little melody, which tumbled into a thicket of amorphous gestures. It was all very willful, arbitrary and enchanting.

Osvaldo Golijov’s elegiac Mariel, a cello solo from 1999, was the most melodious and tonal music on the program — it even has a V-I cadence at a crucial point. Strings of rising figures in dotted rhythms, long-short first and then short-long, ratcheted up the energy at the start. They blossom into beautiful lyric melodies that Wild played with effortless dignity.

Kwan’s piano became very much a percussion instrument in Alexandre Lunsqui’s Glaes, composed for Beyer in 2007. Beyer manned an unconventional battery including, first and foremost, a Brazilian bermibao, and wine bottles, sandpaper, pie tins, a mixing bowl and more. With these implements and the prepared piano, the two created and sustained Lunsqui’s complicated but propulsive beat as they played some wickedly irregular rhythms against that beat. Kwan spent most of her time reaching into the piano, to produce all manner of exotic sounds. When Beyer wasn’t busy with his own toys, he reached into the piano, too.

Glaes (that is, Glass) skittered by lightly in their hands, as they teased out the wit in the music. The rhythm charmed but not so much as the oddball timbres. Lunsqui made a sonic curio shop of funny little gizmos that buzz and pop in your ear like so many funny little wind-up toys on a table. Or better yet, like an Alexander Calder circus.

The Unruly Music Spring Festival, a UWM Music Department project directed by Chris Burns, continues at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall through this weekend.

7:30 p.m. Friday, April 5: A Milwaukee large-ensemble improvisation summit, featuring the Milwaukee Laptop Orchestra (MiLO), the TC-11 Orchestra (TORCH), and the Great Lakes Improvising Orchestra, led by Hal Rammel.

Saturday, April 6: The Spektral Quartet returns to perform Elliot Carter’s pivotal Second String Quartet and a host of new works composed for the group by UWM faculty and students.

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