Live From Ann Arbor: Chapter 1
The first University of Michigan Composers’ Forum concert of the 2010-2011 season took place in the evening on Monday, October 11. Earmarked by the department as a preview for the upcoming Midwest Composers Symposium in Cincinnati, I had been looking forward to this event for over a month as my first opportunity to experience the creativity of my colleagues here in Michigan. Like most music schools, our Composers’ Forum is organized and performed by students and viewed as an arena in which the composers studying here may test concepts and solidify their ideas before moving on to a more professional setting.
Anyone who has pursued a degree in music composition has most likely experienced a similar concert; they can be long and inconsistent in terms of the overall quality. While the composers here at Michigan proffered thirteen works spanning nearly two and a half hours, there were no stinkers on the program. Every piece displayed the strength of its creator in a different way and each composition brought something unique to the table, producing an aural narrative full of twists and turns and leaving a delightfully heterogeneous resonance in my mind’s ear.
The first piece on the program was Will Pertz’ philosophy, rhetoric, anarchy, nostalgia, klang!! for solo violin. Mr. Pertz’s product on Monday was dazzlingly brief insofar as it contained a single pizzicato note. It took more time to read the title of this work than hear it, which disarmed me because Emily Graber, the soloist, returned backstage before I could look up from the program. Initially, I found the piece off-putting, and reasoned it was a poor attempt at hyper-intellectual slop, but I was wrong. As pointed out to me by Professor Erik Santos, Mr. Pertz’ title is an anagram for “prank”, which gives philosophy, rhetoric, anarchy, nostalgia, klang!! a completely different character. Like Erik Satie’s Furniture Music, Mr. Pertz’s composition is playful mockery of music’s high academia and I salute Mr. Pertz’s cleverness even though I am embarrassed I didn’t pick up on it by myself.
Next down the line was Donia Jarrar’s composition for two pianos, Cairo, Bahibik (Cairo, I love you). The first of several programmatic works that evening, Cairo Bahibik opened with a contemplative piano sound along the lines of Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada and quickly departed to a upbeat world of hocketed ostinati, mixed meter and free-flowing, folk-like melodies flying from one pianist’s hands to the other’s. After filling the hall with high energy, Ms. Jarrar led her listeners back to the reflective opening mood, which was transformed both literally in her score and figuratively as a result of the preceding activity. Cairo, Bahibik succeeded at both creating a portrait of Ms. Jarrar’s programmatic subject and refracting this image through the prism of her musical intuition. In other words, she discarded potentially trite surface details to focus on base impressions, aromas, echoes and shadows of her experience in Egypt, producing in my mind the flickering sensation that I had been to Cairo, as well.
Michael-Thomas Fumai’s cello solo Ultra-Violet came next and called on his soloist to run the stage like the lead guitarist from a heavy metal band riffing during a set break. Replete with bravado and instrumental noise ranging from grinding bow sounds to wild vibrato and sul ponticello, Ultra-Violet was a thunderous exercise in virtuostiy, much like its “sister work” on the program, Joseph Kern’s Piston. Though not adjacent, Piston and Ultra-Violet dipped into a similar palette of colors and melodies, though Mr. Kern’s work was not for cello and, instead, featured solo contrabass. I was impressed that, in spite of their preference for sounds and extended techniques, Mr. Fumai and Mr. Kern were able to develop clear phrases, many of which lacked discernible pitches or traditional motives. Both Piston and Ultra-Violet were voluble essays on string techniques, but wisely supported the esotercism of their sound worlds’ components with a satisfyingly palpable dramatic flow.
Separating Mr. Kern’s and Mr. Fumai’s solo pieces on the program were Kathryn Mueller’s il filosofi della collina for baritone and guitar and Roberto Kalb’s Xalli Itic for string trio. Ms. Mueller’s song was the most intimate work of the evening and featured a highly poised performance from Brandon Grimes, her vocal soloist. Armed with Ms. Mueller’s compelling vocal lines, Mr. Grimes delivered a profound monologue as his partner on stage, Katie Battisoni, added intermittent commentary. Eventually the guitar rose to greater prominence, revealing Ms. Mueller’s clever structure of role reversal and deftly disguising a repetition of the brief text. Roberto Kalb’s Xalli Itic was another programmatic composition and included brilliantly executed and elegant transitions between very distinct materials. Armed with a strong sense of direction, Xalli Itic alternatively explored activity and repose, representing a struggle for calmness, which is ultimately attained through the sustained recapitulation of consonant themes that occurred ephemerally earlier on in the piece.
The first half of the concert closed with Subaran Raman’s darvisha, for six alto saxophones. Mr. Raman’s work, along with Patrik Harlin’s Molasses and David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep, comprised a trio a strong compositions featuring saxophones. Each demonstrated the exceptional abilities of Professor Donald Sinta’s saxophone studio here at the University of Michigan by employing a wild mixture of highly syncopated grooves and unexpected interruptions of softer legato music. Darvisha, in particular, played on the fact that saxophones have a very uniform timbre and Mr. Raman used the consistency of his ensemble to develop intriguing panning effects of simple melodies repeated and staggered among his players. Mr. Harlin and Mr. Biedenbender’s quartets also explored the homogeneity of saxophone sound, but paired this with a thoughtful display of the subtle differences between the classes of saxophones. All together, the prevalence of energetic rhythms and thrillingly fast melodies made darvisha, Molasses and you’ve been talking in your sleep consummate examples of idiomatic saxophone music and these three composer’s fine ability.
There were four more pieces on the second half, which opened with Ron Amchin’s percussion quartet Johnny Stayed Inside. Not a “dirty every pot in drawer” percussion piece, Johnny Stayed Inside used four antiphonally dispersed soloists and clear motives to create an aurally stimulating work with recognizable structural points. The second half ended with Jeremy Crosmer’s Violin Sonata in E Minor. Before I discuss the piece, it should be pointed out that Mr. Crosmer is a true jewel of the Michgan Composition department as he is both a master’s student in composition and a doctoral student in cello performance. Mr. Crosmer performed on four of the concert’s pieces including Michael-Thomas Fumai’s athletic Ultra-Violet. Admirably, Mr. Crosmer is clearly able to balance his cello playing with writing music because his Violin Sonata demonstrated excellent talent. Unusual among the evenings other music because if its use of functional harmonies, Mr. Crosmer’s composition flowed effortlessly between different styles culminating in the fast final movement “Golden Refraction”, which was highly reminiscent of mid-century American composers such as Kent Kennan, William Schuman and Howard Hanson.
Last but not least, I will discuss Hakki Cengiz Eren’s Colores, on a poem by Federico Garcia Lopez and Brett Bohman’s String Quartet no. 1. Like everything else I heard last night, these works positively demonstrated the craft of their creators. Colores illustrated Mr. Eren’s proficiency in orchestrating a challenging ensemble (soprano, horn, bass trombone, harp, viola, and cello) and Mr. Bohman’s String Quartet no. 1 included one of the most beautiful violin solos I’ve heard in a long time. These two works epitomized a common thread throughout the concert: the composers invented musical ideas with strong identities and played off these recognizable figures to manipulate the levels of ambiguity in their music. Resultantly, most of the works I heard were driven by a kind of thematic tension and release, engendering them with strong momentum through time, which is not easily mastered in the post-tonal aesthetic.
Obviously, I was very pleased with what I heard and I am excited to be in the vicinity of so many high-level composers. Of course, my comments on the pieces I heard Monday strictly relate to my own interpretations of the presented music and are not meant to enforce a point of view upon anyone else’s experience. Following the event, Assistant Professor of Composition Kristin Kuster commented:
Our five student composer’s concerts are bright spots each academic year for the UM Faculty composers. It is a pleasure to hear our students take risks, try new things and grow toward a better understanding of their individual artistic voices. The diversity of musical styles we heard last night performed by our top-notch performance majors exemplifies what these concerts are all about: go for it, we’re delighted to hear it! (And Go Blue).
For those of you who are not located such that you can come see these composers in person, I recommend you keep a look out for their names at the major music festivals and award announcements for years to come.