Conductor Christopher James Lees

Up until this last weekend, the true new music season was yet to begin at the University of Michigan. True, fabulous the Symphony Band and members of the performance faculty have already made fabulous presentations of contemporary music (as I’ve written about), but the two groups most dedicated to the work of living composers – the students of the Composition Department and the Contemporary Directions Ensemble – did not start their engines before last Saturday.

Although it is gaining momentum at the University of Michigan, the Contemporary Direction Ensemble is one of Ann Arbor’s best kept secrets, thanks in large part to its dynamic director Christopher James Lees. Maestro Lees’ commitment to new music is only matched by his charisma and musical ability. In the case of the group’s first concert of the season on Saturday, all three of these qualities were overshadowed by Mr. Lees’ perspicacious programming. If I wanted to be understated, I would say the selection and ordering of works was immaculate, but I prefer language more elaborate. I was entrained from beginning to end by the beguiling ebb of instrumental strength, musical style and length as each work passed to the next. Collectively, the pieces Mr. Lees selected attacked me, beckoned me, mesmerized me, connected me to an imagined past, nuzzled me, astonished me and drove me to tap me feet. It was the most engaging, well-constructed and consistent new music event I’ve ever attended. So, without discussing (or identifying!) any of the individual works and performances, I can confidently declare that, at least on Sunday night, Maestro Lees and his performers were far beyond reproach.

The first work on the program was Chris TheofanidisRaga (1992), scored for pierrot-plus. As the program note mentioned, the piece makes many allusions to Indian music, mainly through the use of drones, melodic slides and the bongo drums’ ‘faux-tabla’ groove. Overall, the work moves from simplicity – one note colored variably in the ensemble – to more melodic complexity. Raga is tied together by the consistency of the melodic material and the two percussion parts: the bongos are omnipresent and gong hits accompany most of the important structural delineations in the piece. As I’ve indicated, all the melodic/harmonic material is very closely related throughout, so development takes place in subtle ways such as increased ornamentation when melodies return, thickening the contrapuntal landscape (which produces a kind of whitewash effect since the mode is shared in all the lines), and so forth. The only notable contrasting ideas come in the form of dissonant clusters in the piano, which play an important role in leading the piece to its climatic conclusion of towering, static harmonies.

Surprisingly, there was only one other piece on the concert’s first half written for a group of players – Martin Bresnick’s My Twentieth Century (2002). I was excited to see this piece was on the program because I had never heard it live, though I cannot lie I had a few trepidations about the quality of the mid-performance reading. Granted, the players at Michigan are supremely talented, but, nevertheless, public speaking isn’t their primary activity. To my great pleasure, every speaker was convincing and evocative, thanks – I’m sure – to the coaching they received from Lindsay Kesselman, a fantastic soprano and wife to Maestro Lees. The speakers’ success rose in significance Saturday night because the musical performance was killer – it would have been ashamed is some sheepish reading had put a blemish on the playing. Dylan Perez, the pianist, and Janet Lyu, the violinist, stood out the most for me in an ensemble of the best chamber players in the building. Although their prominence was aided by the structural significance of each of their parts (the piano’s importance is obvious from the work’s outset, but you can’t overlook the way the violin line effects change in the music’s highly repetitive texture), both Dylan and Janet should be especially credited for commanding the musical side of the piece so confidently and deftly.

Intervening between Raga and My Twentieth Century were two dramatic works for soloists (primarily…): Berio’s Sequenza I for flute solo (1958) and the song ‘i had no reason’ from David Lang’s opera the difficulty of crossing a field (1999). The Berio really shined for me thanks to flutist Charlotte Daniel’s captivating performance. I have heard the work multiple times in concert and it has always come across impressively because of the technical mastery required to pull it off. Yet, Charlotte added an expressive level to the music I had never experienced before. Of course, the notes were all there, but a level of drama – a quality present in other members of the Sequenza series, to be sure – came across as well, giving the piece an almost seductive level of energy not easily associated with the disjunct, angular lines Berio favors in the work. Similarly compelling was mezzo-soprano Maureen Ferguson’s performance of David Lang’s ‘i had no reason’. The song was presented with her in a spotlight on a dark stage and, though a violinist eventually accompanied her singing, the focus of the audience was magnified upon her voice and facial expressions for the whole duration of the performance. The music is very repetitive and modal, placing even more emphasis on Ms. Ferguson’s ability to express her character’s feelings through subtle inflections in her voice and physiognomy. I think the whole room was absolutely transfixed by the steady beauty of her singing and overall portrayal of the excerpt. At least I was.

The second half of the concert was a little more brief, but no less potent, than the first. It began with Visual Abstract (2002), by Pierre Jalbert, a former professor of mine at Rice University. This work is a little different than anything else of his I had heard because it is intended to accompany a video by Jean Detheux, and do so with pretty close synchronization seeing that there is a visual/metronomic countdown on the video at the beginning of each movement. One of the most wonderful aspects of this piece, for me, was Mr. Jalbert’s use of percussion – it was always used to color another idea present in the ensemble. Not only did interesting timbres result from this strategy, but the percussion also felt like it was more integrated into the musical environment than if it had just been an independent entity. Admirably, this aspect of the piece lent the group’s sound a sense of cohesion even when the music was webbed with contrapuntal ideas.

Augusta Reed ThomasRumi Settings (2001) was the program’s penultimate work, a duo for violin and viola appropriately placed to set up the evening’s raucous conclusion – Evan ChambersCrazed for the Flame (2002). Despite its limited forces, Ms. Thomas’ work is very dynamic in terms of energy level, achieving both repose and explosion thanks to the fantastic work of violist Linnea Powell and – once again – violinist Janet Lyu. The movements essentially alternate texture with the thick, chromatic, ‘pesante’ counterpoint of the first movement leading to the pointillism and prevalent pizzicato of the more subdued second. This air of introspection continues in the third movement, which features the violin prominently in solo sections set against drone-like material in the viola. The final movement is denoted by double stops and an unprecedented attitude of aggression, expressed with remarkable beauty by Ms. Lyu’s violin playing. Crazed for the Flame is an indulgent, over-the-top, high-energy musical romp – the perfect way to end this concert. The work opens with an expansive chord on which the players seemingly vamp (I’m sure everything is notated, but it had the character of a vamp). This idea repeats, is interrupted by a groove in the percussion and then repeats again with less force as before. From this point forward, more lyrical moments emerge in dialogue with the preceding groovy/high-energy music. An alternation between these two musics persists but not without change – the high-energy moments become more vivid as the work approaches its ending, which is best described as a ‘bang’.

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Monday’s season-opening student composers’ concert began in the same fashion as the Contemporary Directions Ensemble concert ended – with musical fury. Much to their credit, DMA students David Biedenbender, Bret Bohman, Paul Dooley and Michael-Thomas Foumai assembled a ‘chamber orchestra’ identical in instrumentation to the group Alarm Will Sound, and put on works they had written for the famed ensemble while participating in the University of Missouri’s annual New Music Summer Festival. Given the works’ premise (i.e. they had been written for a particular group with a particular brand of new music they known for playing well), I was not surprised by the consistently overpowering energy level of the concert’s four opening pieces – I am happy to say listening to them back-to-back was like shooting four shots of musical espresso.

Mr. Biedenbender’s Schism (2011) opens divisively, repeatedly pitting a very high and very low sonority against each other, then a switch flips and a jazzy, blues-based groove (complete with a wa-wa-ing trumpet part) takes over and stays in control for most of the piece. The regularity of the rhythm is broken periodically, ultimately for the purpose of recollecting the higher half of the piece’s initial idea. Despite these brief interruptions, the groovy music is well in control until the work’s closing wherein the opening idea returns in full force and is elaborated slightly before the music’s motor gives out and the audience’s ride is over. Mr. Foumai’s Big Rip (2011) – the title refers to a scientific theory about the creation of the universe – picks up the pace left to the listeners by Schism with the repeated, upward sweeping gesture that begins the piece. There is a moment of repose with a solo in the piccolo and then – after a reentry of the very beginning’s material – the flute, before the rhythmic pattern that dominates the entire work emerges to the foreground. The most prominent harmonies in Big Rip are much more tertian than the blues-based material of Schism and, when combined with the music’s frenetic activity level, gave me a sense of imaginary pursuit. In contrast to the opening, most of the piece is not very gestural – just highly rhythmic – and the work’s initial ideas return or are referenced with great clarity, ostensibly adding disorder to the musical system we’re accustomed to and bringing about the work’s explosive conclusion.

Mr. Dooley’s Point Blank (2010) is furiously rhythmic like the works that I’ve already discussed, but employs a few more delicate textures (in relative terms) than the surrounding music. The piece begins with a variety of glissandi and other interesting string colors like artificial harmonics and passages of scratch tones. Pro Forma, a fast groove is set in the percussion, but Mr. Dooley uses this more as a foundation upon which he can layer longer, contrapuntal lines. Like Schism, Point Blank favors wa-wa sounds coming from the trombone and trumpet both with harmon and (for the trumpet) plunger mutes. Instead of ending with a bang, the texture weakens and the last sounds we hear is very high pizzicato in all the strings. Mr. Bohman’s Speed (2011) closed this quartet of intensity with – as the name suggests – high volume and high energy. The opening is loud, but unstable and the music doesn’t gain confidence until a very fast groove enters. Despite the presence of this section’s rhythmic stability, the music is not as uniform in terms of dynamics as its predecessors. Speed is particularly different than the three earlier works because the drumset is not a constant participant in the music and doesn’t really take over until the final breakdown, which was epic and my favorite of all four works’ groove-based sections (this is purely based on my love of heavy metal, which makes my taste for grooves very finicky – Speed just got it right, its no fault to the other pieces).

The first half of the concert closed out with Zac Lavender’s The Study of Waves (2010), Justin Aftab’s Landscape 4:54 (2010), which I already reviewed, and Piere Derycz’s Reflections (this was announced from stage) and Michael Schachter’s Jig (2011). This concert featured some repeat works from last year’s concerts because it is a ‘tune-up’ for next year’s Midwest Composers Symposium. Therefore, I will only cover the pieces that were new to me.

The Study of Waves represents Mr. Lavender’s attempt to put the tradition-rich instrumentation of a string quartet in opposition to an electric guitar. At first, the two acoustic forces work together – there is a collective exploration of harmonics which transitions rather nicely into a less sustained texture of pizzicato in the quartet and shorter-lasting ideas in the guitar. The first concrete melodic idea enters suddenly in the cello, and it is from here that Mr. Lavender contrasts tradition and modernity most clearly. First, there is a pizzicato fugue and than a sequence of lyrical, neo-romantic harmonies in the strings before the electric guitar reenters the conversation and brings back the melodic idea that broke the more guitar-predominant texture of the beginning.

Like Mr. Lavender who played electric guitar in Study of Waves, Mr. Derycz delivered a very beautiful of his solo cello piece Reflections. The piece is in three movements, each of which explores a different ‘side’ of the cello. The first is reminiscent of the Bach cello suites with implied extend tertian harmonies and, ultimately a fair amount of double stops. However, the language is (obviously) much more free and explosive, with several climactic – yet restrained – bursts of thorniness in the middle of movement. The second movement is like a whirling rondo rooted in a detached yet subdued introduction. The intervening section contrast strongly with the opening material, and gradually begin to lose control of themselves, spinning off bursts of music colored more and elaborately until the music just stops. The final movement is lush and dulled by a gray patina of mourning or, maybe, regret. The sense of introspection is bolstered by yearning double-stop sequences with beautiful suspensions. Though most of the musical direction is downward, the movement takes a different turn as it ends and the final idea is an ascending scale of harmonics reaching as high as the instrument is able.

Michael Schachter’s Jig, for piano and cello, shared traits with Andy Ly’s solo piano piece In the style off… (2011), which was the second work on the second half, following my work for two marimbas Dark Spiral (2011). Jig, reflective of Mr. Schachter’s wont, uses traditional harmonic and rhythmic elements, with the classic triple meter dance rhythm associated with the work’s title breaking irregularly with the main theme’s tendency towards hemiola. This syncopated feeling also extends to the harmonic rhythm, but not so dramatically as to contend with the overwhelmingly Romantic sensibility of the music. The melodic ideas remain pretty close to home, though they do vary noticeably in terms of rhythm and, most importantly, syncopation, which – to my ears – lends the piece, particularly towards the end, the spirit of ragtime music. In the style of… was written, literally, as a style study of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. Mr. Ly captures the essence of those miniatures to perfection, particularly in the first movement with its abounding canons and predominating dissonances: major and minor seconds. The second movement offers a more varied texture, though it begins with similar contrapuntal ideas as the its predecessor. However, these eventually give way to a slower, more expansive and lyrical piano texture that occupies much of the movement’s short duration before the initial fast music returns.

Because Joseph Prestamo’s Sketches, which I reviewed last year, and Chaz Allen’s Magnitude, which appeared on the final composers’ concert last year, were the final two pieces on the program, I’ll finish this review Jeremy Crosmer’s Sonata for Bassoon and Continuo. As I mentioned more than once in last year’s posts, Mr. Crosmer is an exceptional cellist who also bothers to be a pretty good composer in his spare time. His Sonata showcased both abilities as he performed the cello part of the ‘continuo’. The first movement opens slowly, ultimately evolving into a faster, more contrapuntal situation dominated by the piano and bassoon. The cello is more active as a melodic contributor in the next movement, which begins with unaccompanied pizzicati, and moves quickly to a lovely duet between the bassoon and cello (now arco) before the piano enters, imitating the opening plucked line in the cello as the bassoon continues its melodic musing. The final movement is a little more dynamic in mood, and includes some beautiful moments of inter-ensemble orchestrating on Mr. Crosmer’s part, namely a moment with the cello has harmonics paired with high, high sonorities in the piano. To be honest, the entire piece is pretty impeccably written, exposing the virtuosity of the players and there instruments in a neo-classical harmonic language that – although it isn’t always my favorite – is very true to Mr. Crosmer’s personality. The ensemble is handled rather masterfully throughout, and it seemed very evident that color, in addition to harmony, was an important consideration in most of Mr. Crosmer’s compositional decisions.

One Response to “A Red Hot Start to Michigan’s New Music Season”
  1. glf says:

    Wow, I knew Theofanidis could be a part of the revolution, but I never thought he was the saviour of all of us! Should I be praying to him whenever I do something musically sinful?

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