Beyond the Dead White Europeans

Present Music offers a unique four night concert of diverse composers.

By - Feb 20th, 2018 02:25 pm
Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov shows an abstract sketch of My Desert, My Rose

Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov shows an abstract sketch of My Desert, My Rose

Present Music concerts are themselves unique creations. The contemporary chamber concert series to be performed this week at four venues – Thursday through Saturday – began with only a title: “Give Chance a Piece.” It was PM ensemble member Eric Segnitz who came up with the title, “and I thought the phrase, and its various meanings, had merit,” says Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim. What began as a daft pun wandered in many directions as it came together.

“I’ve been wanting to do more composers that are outside of the dead white European tradition,” to reflect “where we are in today’s world.” Stalheim observes. The concert represents that diversity: three young women composers with roots in Iran, Armenia, Serbia and India. Their compositions often reflect their heritage and personal experiences. Non-Western musical sources add fresh perspective to their music.

Composer Sahba Aminikia

Composer Sahba Aminikia

Some of the works address conflict and war. Sahba Aminikia‘s Elegy honors the death of 60 children who were killed in an accidental U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in 2008. Another of his works, Shab o Meh (Night and Fog), paints the story of his own experience being beaten and robbed in the outskirts of Tehran. Mary Kouyoumdjian wrote a work, A Boy and a Makeshift Toy, inspired by a photo which captures a young boy at play while waiting with his family to be taken to a refugee camp.

Stalheim notes that several works reflect experiences of childhood. He added more “life-affirming” experience by including a non-instrumental piece which includes the audience in a reflection of “Sounds from Childhood” following instructions by established contemporary composer Pauline Oliveros and a work of contemporary jazz, Dig the Say, by Vijay Iyer, which joyfully echoes the music and spirit of R&B singer James Brown.

Chance is introduced in a composition by Aleksandara VrebalovThe string quartet My Desert, My Rose introduces a tender melody in a solo cello, and the melody moves to the viola and on to the violins in the model of a fugue, but all players are permitted to play at their own length, meter, tempo and dynamics. Secondary themes are short and pulsing, somewhat obscuring mismatched sounds. Players are instructed, however, to listen to one another. After a slow opening, the music steadily picks up the pace, as the composer also reins in the players. The quartet ends in unison with fully annotated lines. The composer’s note summarizes: “It is like a journey of four characters that start in distinctly different places who, after long searching and occasional, brief meeting points, end up in the same space, time, language.” Watch her discussion of the composition here.

Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian

Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian

Chance also applies to the open-ended instructions in the Sounds from Childhood work and to the flexibility offered the string quartet playing the jazz-influenced Dig the Say. A work for piano, Henry Cowell‘s The Banshee, also allows some improvisation. Pianist Cory Smythe will “play” the piano from inside — generating eerie overtones by sweeping his hands across the strings or plucking brief melodic fragments. The resulting sound matches the title: a haunting, horrific, banshee-like tone emerges from under the lid.

Comparing those works available on YouTube (follow the links in their references above), I find the works by the younger artists work very well together. Although interesting, the more laid-back Cowell work offers less of the emotional energy – intense or upbeat – of the other works. And all the works seem appropriate for an intimate performance setting. Smythe on piano will be joined by a quartet of string players: violinists Segnitz and Paul Hauer, violist Maria Ritzenthaler and cellist Adrien Zitoun. The works include a piano solo, trio and two instrumental pairs. The often intense emotions are served subtly by the reduced instrumentation.

With this concert Present Music returns audiences from the concert hall of the last two centuries to the intimate settings of the chamber, even returning to the private homes where much of chamber music historically began. In the hands of players with extensive experience with contemporary music, new music will be heard at its transparent best.

This chamber series will be repeated at four venues: Thursday, February 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Riverwest; Friday, February 23 at 11:00 a.m. at the Women’s Club of Wisconsin in Downtown Milwaukee; in the East-Side home of John Shannon and Jan Serr on Friday evening at 7:30 p.m.; and the Third Ward loft of Tim and Sue Frautschi on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Single tickets are available for $15/25/35 (prices dictated by seating) at the two larger venues. Student tickets are half-price with a valid student id. Tickets are available by phone (414-271-0711)  and online, as well as at-the-door the day of the concert. Online ticket sales end at midnight Thursday, February 22. In previous years, the house concert sold out quickly. With two locations, some seats are still available as the preview is written. These special events are $100. They offer more intimate settings, in homes surrounded by art and include a pre-concert buffet.

The Present Music season continues March 24 with Between Two Worlds, an exploration of works that cross between the worlds of American folk and new classical music. Guest conductor David Bloom will return for the second time this season.

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