Playing On All The Emotions

Present Music's Friday concert aims directly at your heart with a variety of short works by contemporary composers.

By - Mar 18th, 2015 10:26 am
Molly Joyce, composer of world premiere composition - Luminescence. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Molly Joyce, composer of world premiere composition – Luminescence. Photo by Nir Arieli.

Contemporary music often pushes the envelop in the search for new ideas and sonic experiences. Composers have the most room to do this if they are creating “absolute” music. By contrast, when composing music that aims to touch the emotions, they must take more care to communicate with their audience. The result is typically more approachable music, tapping a more universal, even transcendent response.

This Friday evening’s Present Music concert at Turner Hall – “Equinox: Journey from the dark to the light” belongs more in the second category of music.

For years, Present Music has offered a November concert at Saint John’s Cathedral that blends characteristics of secular and sacred music in an eclectic, but satisfying whole. (A number of people I know “observe” Thanksgiving by attending this annual concert.) Now, with an eye toward the promise of Spring, Present Music has fashioned an even more coherent experience.

The visionary curator of Present Music concerts, Kevin Stalheim, reflects, “Concerts can almost take on a life of their own and Equinox is turning out to be extremely special for me. The concert will go from darkness, death, and winter to hope and light and spring. … It should be quite a journey.”

Osvaldo Golijov

Osvaldo Golijov – photo from Cabrillo Festival

“Tenebrae” (2002) by Osvaldo Golijov opens the concert with a work incorporating elements of a haunting 17th century work by François Couperin. Golijov writes, “if one chooses to listen to it from afar, the music would probably offer a beautiful surface but, from a metaphorically closer distance… the music is full of pain.”

Several choral works follow, sung by Present Music’s recent ensemble addition, Hearing Voices – this time presented as a women’s vocal quartet. Aulis Sallinen‘s funereal song, “Winter Was Hard,” seems inspired by deep Scandinavian winters. The wry humor in the text may be lost in the Finnish rendition; For instance: “Winter was hard … Saturday evening could only be celebrated every other Saturday.”

“O lux beata trinities” (O Trinity of Blessed Light), a sparse 4th century vesper hymn attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan, is well matched to Sir John Tavener‘s Orthodox liturgical work, “As One Who Has Slept” (1996), and to David Lang‘s minimalist work, “evening morning day” (2007). “To find something universal,” Lang writes, “I (made) a kind of checklist of everything that needed to be created to get the world to this point.”

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams – photo by Donald Lee/Banff Centre

Composer John Luther Adams – whose work “Inuksuit” was featured in a full length concert in 2013 at the Lynden Sculptural Center – explores “The Light Within,” as the title suggests. A slow pace to the music is marked by bright inventive instrumentation.

A more insistent intense work, “Thaw” (2011), by Ken Thomson, is faster paced than the Adams work, but develops slowly. Thomson describes composing in an upstate New York cabin. “I spent days writing music, watching snow and ice fall around me. … One thing I became aware of in my time in the cabin was the passage of time being both slow and fast.  This movement is about that — it’s completely static and fast-moving at the same time.  It features the wandering of the optimistic imagination as well as the truck of time ever moving forward.”

The most contemporary aspect of most of these works is the pacing – slow to develop, meditative, haunting and often desolate. But the mood evolves as the concert continues.

Present Music has also commissioned a new work, “Luminescence,” by 23-year old Julliard composer Molly Joyce. She writes that her composition “is inspired by the idea of finding light in the world and in our lives in unexpected places.” Stalheim appreciates the naturalness in Joyce’s work. The “sounds and harmonies have a raw side.” She is not “mimicking others, but finding her own voice,” he notes.

Elena Kats-Chernin

Elena Kats-Chernin – photo Bridget Elliot

Spring arrives with two contemporary and upbeat takes on the season. Both Elena Kats-Chernin’s work, “The Seasons,” and Astor

Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons” include a movement called “Spring,” which incorporates a dance beat into their celebration, ending the evening with a tango step.

Stalheim had fun fitting the concert’s works together. “This is one of my favorite concerts,” he says. After fashioning a playlist of those works available on YouTube, I would have to agree. The individual works are all attractive. But the collection forms a transcendent whole.

Art installations by UW-Milwaukee faculty artists Dean Valadez, Brooke Thiele and local visual artist Shannon Molter will add an additional dimension to the experience.

Present Music will perform at a familiar venue, Turner Hall Ballroom (1040 N. 4th Street) at 7:30 PM on Friday, March 20.  Before the concert at 6:45 PM, Molly Joyce will discuss her world premiere work. Single tickets ($15, $25, and $35) are available at or at (414) 271-0711. Students are always 50% off.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us