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Live From Ann Arbor: Chapter 3

The first student composers’ concert of the new year at the University of Michigan took place last Monday, January 31st. Although brief, this evening of premieres and experiments was just as potent, moving and successful as the other student-run new music events I’ve shared with the Sequenza21. Offering a diverse menu of solo, chamber and electronic compositions, Monday’s concert made yet another statement toward the rich and vast musical community operating in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The evening opened in grand style with Wil PertzThe Drink of the Wise #25 Origins (Ti), an aleatoric piece for 16 players divided into four choirs: strings, winds, brass and percussion. The music starts with quietly tinkling wood and metal percussion instruments, and then layers of string harmonics, brief woodwind melodies and, dramatically rich brass chords are added above. The music drives strongly toward sonic expansion, and gradually builds intensity culminating with a striking switch from metal and wood percussion instruments to djembe drums. Mr. Pertz even constructed a complementary visual layout for the music: the percussionists wore body paint and, as the music achieved its climax, the string players began to walk around the stage.

Next on the program was Donia Jarrar’s electronic composition The Dictator Balances on His Inside Edge. Though originally composed with a generic extra-musical program, Ms. Jarrar took time before the piece to connect the political implications to the current unrest in Egypt. The Dictator Balances is a “classic” electronic composition, building a complex and enthralling field of sounds from recordings of Ms. Jarrar performing various figure skating techniques. The most memorable aural event was a slowly intensifying swooshing noise, which could easily represent the churning of growing popular protest against any autocrat, not least President Mubarak.

Similarly compelling was David Biedenbender’s electronic piece cold.hard.steel, which appeared a later on the program. Like Ms. Jarrar’s work, cold.hard.steel used recurring sonic motives to create a clear aural narrative in the absence of “pure” musical material. Here, Mr. Biedenbender grabbed my ear with a striking contrast: cold metallic sounds juxtaposed with the sound of human breathing. The resulting affect was engagingly grim, and remained as such even when the clear opening gave way to heavier processing. Though the sound world changed from chillingly raw to rationally synthesized, Mr. Biedenbender found clever ways to preserve the identity of his most memorable sounds, constantly referring back to the work’s frighteningly visceral beginning.

Intervening between The Dictator Balances on His Inside Edge and the intermission were impressive solo works by Michael Schachter and Corey Smith, both of whom have not appeared on composers’ concerts this academic year. Mr. Schachter’s piece, Aphorism (from the “Book of Prayers”) elegantly wove a detailed musical structure with the modest force of a solo clarinet. Aphorism used register to denote two conflicting arenas of material, which blended at varying degrees over the course of the piece. Though Mr. Schachter’s melodies flowed in an improvisatory manner, he injected clear references to the work’s seed material – for instance, a grace note motive – making the vast musical journey of the piece cohesive on a large scale.

Corey Smith’s solo violin composition, gaze not at the boundless sky, also drew its form from a small motivic kernel, which – in the case of Mr. Smith’s work – was exposed at length in the opening of the piece. Like the preceding Aphorism, gaze not at the boundless sky used disparate registers to create a sense of musical gravity, engendering more listless passages with an unspoken sense of direction insofar as these moments were tethered to a much higher register incompletely explored earlier in the piece. Mr. Smith touched on the full range of violin sounds without seeming encyclopedic. In other words, every passage clearly served the overarching narrative of the music; no music seemed vestigial.

The first piece after the intermission was Ron Amchin’s art/musical theater song Sleep of Mine. My ambiguity regarding the genre is deliberate: Mr. Amchin’s own program note acknowledged it would be spurious to call the song musical theater, yet he isn’t sure what it is exactly. His baritone soloist, Brandon Grimes, performed with a belty, informal singing style, similar to soprano Clare Lesser’s recordings of Wolfgang Rihm’s art songs. With the exception of a brief, waltz-like middle section that sounded straight out of a Sondheim show, Sleep of Mine was complex and atonal. The result was a bizarre and almost comic merger of two extremely distinct styles, which I found successfully shocking. Though I couldn’t point to the reasons I enjoyed Sleep of Mine, its boldness and dysfunction worked for me.

David Biedenbender’s cold.hard.steel. followed Sleep of Mine, leaving Joseph Prestamo’s piano trio, through the still shadows, to close Monday’s concert. The work is in two closely related movements woven together by Mr. Prestamo’s uniquely expressive harmonic language. The first movement, “slow colors fade” projects a mood of stillness, achieving its desultory character by cleverly masking meter and downbeats. Steady eighth notes rule the surface of this opening movement until the very end, when the piano speeds up to prepare us for the faster second movement “scattered leaves”. Here, Mr. Prestamo uses a wide variety of highly rhythmic textures to contrast with the preceding music, and even refers to the first movement but modifies the allusions with more active rhythms. Towards the end of the movement, the cello and violin have a sort of tug-o-war each pulling in different directions, one back toward the slow first movement, the other hurdling into the fast-paced future. Speed wins in the end, and the piece spins itself into oblivion as the piano ascends rapidly into its highest range.

through the still shadows was both excellently written and superbly performed, a fitting end to a concert full of top-notch musicians including the aforementioned Brandon Grimes, violinist Emily Graber, who performed on Mr. Pertz’ the Drink of the Wise and Mr. Smith’s gaze not at the boundless sky, and Mr. Prestamo who played his own piece and Mr. Amchin’s. Strong performances abounded this last week at the University of Michigan as a student-run group performed all six Brandenburg concertos on Saturday, January 29th. The Symphony Band is set to perform works by William Bolcom and Michael Daugherty on an “all-American” concert on Friday too, just to give a sampling of the vibrant musical environment that surrounds all the composers here at the University of Michigan.