Present Music’s wild party of a season finale
Present Music ends its season with a vibrant, raucous party of a chamber music concert at Turner Hall.
Friday night, even music by the late Elliott Carter — champion of extreme ivory-tower complexity — got a groove on at Present Music‘s rollicking season finale at Turner Hall.
The remarkable Derek Johnson played Carter’s 1997 Shard, composed for classical guitar, on electric. Johnson bobbed and weaved to parse out the rhythms — who knew you could dance to Elliott Carter? The motion, beyond its entertainment value, helped both Johnson and us feel the pulse concealed beneath the extremely irregular rhythms, atomized melodic gestures and unhummable, fragmentary tunes that jump dissonant intervals across two or three octaves. Carter can sound pretty good when a player can get past the extreme technical difficulty of the music and play it with the conviction and verve that Johnson lavished on it.
Johnson, a guest artist based a Ball State University in Indiana, moved from extreme complexity to the folkish simplicity of David Lang’s Wed (1992, arr. Johnson), a pleasant drift of modal chords that remain dreamy even when subject to dissonance around the edges. Johnson ended his solo stint with “Fast,” the third movement of Steve Reich’s 1987 Electric Counterpoint, an exciting buildup of prerecorded and live canons for (recorded) bass guitar and electric guitar and live electric guitar. As with the Carter, Johnson blew through Reich’s formidable challenges with confidence and joy.
Hearne burst on stage and took on the demeanor of a jazz or rock front man with percussion, accordion, guitar, piano and cello behind him. Another of Deans’ bizarre texts — this one about an armed, horse-drawn convoy tense in a defensive circle on the cracking ice of a lake — was the groundwork for “Protection,” the first of three songs drawn from Delusion Stories, a larger cycle composed in 2011. Hearne’s cubist break-up and mash-up of jazz, blues and rock idioms made the music at once familiar and strange in an exciting way. His forceful vernacular tenor sealed the deal in “Protection” and “Shame Campaign.” Hearn wrote the lyrics to the latter and to “359 Each Time.” He left the stage and turned “359” over to Coloff, who killed in this bluesy number riddled with violent, intrusive instrumental gestures.
Guest violinist Sharan Leventhal contributed significant lead work to “Shame” and “359.” Whether out of necessity of preference, artistic director Kevin Stalheim called in a number superb out of town musicians for this concert — Johnson, Leventhal, Coloff and pianist Yegor Shevtsov. Shevtsov played very well indeed in the ensemble numbers and was wonderfully, theatrically athletic in a solo, Scott Wollschleger’s Chaos Analog (2007). Wollschleger’s piece advancess straightforwardly enough, A-B-A-B1-A2/B2. The B sections involves strings of Impressionist harmonies; the A sections present noisy piano techniques – backhand glissandi and fist and forearm shots — in the most orderly, symmetrical, formal ways. I appreciated the irony and enjoyed the high energy.
The two big ensemble numbers, Hearne’s Snowball, from 2008, and the premiere of Sean Friar’s Breaking Point closed the concert and the first half, respectively. Hearne conducted an ensemble of eight in a fashion more akin to Cab Calloway than Edo de Waart, but he was effective as well as amusing. He certainly energized his players and helped them through a very gnarly set of rhythms over weirdly percolating ostinati.
Like Snowball, Friar’s Breaking Point reflected the audacity of youth. Stalheim conducted an ensemble of nine through Friar’s 14-minute Breaking Point, in which Johnson’s electric guitar had a starring role. Violinists Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violist Schwartz, cellist Coloff, bassist Scott Kreger, percussionist Storniolo, pianist Shevstov and clarinetist Alejandro Acierto took to Friar’s astounding parade of grinding noises, noodling piano, hard Bop moments, foundry banging, virtuoso guitar runs, tick-tock pizzicati, electric guitar distortion, imitation of that distortion by the other instruments, metal percussion clangs, blues-tinged rave-ups in the strings and the wild rise to what everyone took for a climactic ending. The thing is so noisy and crazed that it takes on an antic quality, but an elemental guitar figure at the outset recurs throughout and holds the contraption together. The coda after that climactic false ending is a great musical joke, a musical sigh and a resigned laugh. We all know that moment — when we recognize that mountain for the molehill it is.
I stuck around a while for the post-concert party. The rock/ska band Something to Do played. They’re six fun guys, good players, winning personalities, witty songwriters, great for dancing. Check them out. And lots of people hung out with artists from UWM, who put up installations. A good time all around.