This past weekend I attended three concerts in the third annual Chamber Music Festival of the North Carolina School of the Arts. This festival gives the school an opportunity to showcase the best of its student ensembles. The first festival (in 2003) was comprehensive, with each concert devoted to a particular historical period. Last year’s festival was focused exclusively on music from the twentieth century.

For this year, the decision was made to place no restrictions on repertoire, allowing the chamber coaches to assign works solely based on the educational needs of the ensembles. The results were interesting: we ended up with one 18th-century work, one 19th-century work and one 21st-century work. The rest of the music was written in the 20th century.

So far, so good. But digging deeper was very revealing. Despite the preponderance of 20th-century music, there was very little sign of what we’ve come to understand as modernism. I don’t report that as a positive or a negative, but simply as an interesting sign of the times.

The highlight of Friday evening’s concert was Carlos Chávez’s Xochipilli, subtitled “An Imagined Aztec Music.” Scored for piccolo, flute, Eb clarinet, trombone and five percussionists, the piece evokes Native American rhythms and rituals. The trombonist performs from the rear of the auditorium, playing only in the last two minutes, bringing to mind the sound of a conch shell with blurred glissandos throughout the range of the instrument.

Interesting paradox: of all the pieces played on the festival, this is the one that is easiest to write about and most interesting to read about. From a political standpoint, you have diversity: a Latin composer evoking Native American culture. The instrumentation suggests fascinating color combinations. The trombone glissandos introduce an interesting extension of the traditional pitch palette.

And yet, Xochipilli turned out to be one of the least interesting pieces on the festival. We have to give Chavez a lot of credit for ingenuity (how many composers were writing “imagined Aztec music” for five percussion and four winds in 1940?), but he just didn’t accomplish much with the resources at hand. Until the trombone entrance at the end, there was very little to listen to. So we applaud Chavez for going out on a limb, but note that his footing out there was shaky at best.

By contrast, the most effective piece on Friday evening was Györgi Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for woodwind quintet. Unlike Xochipilli, there is nothing terribly interesting to say about this composition, except that it is a masterpiece of chamber literature written for an instrumental ensemble that many composers have found difficult to master. Nothing particularly progressive about the piece, except to the degree that all great music is a triumph of the creative spirit. Fascinating listening from beginning to end.

Lesson to be learned? Never judge a composition by its press package.

Saturday night’s concert gave us Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, a great piece for young string players from an educational standpoint, and for that reason a piece that gets a lot of performances in conservatory environments. The musicians on this occasion were all teenagers; they handled the work’s many technical and artistic challenges wonderfully, although at times the performance was a bit rushed. I’ve heard these same young musicians play this piece more effectively in the past. Were they perhaps in a hurry to finish, so they could head across town in time to hear Joshua Bell’s recital?

(I was actually amazed at the large audience we had for Saturday night’s performance, not only competing with J. Bell, but also with a performance by William Bolcom and Joan Morris and a flute recital by Elizabeth Ransom. I’ve heard since that all four concerts were well attended, a firm rebuke to the conventional wisdom that people don’t go to concerts anymore.)

Oddly enough, the only composition on Saturday’s program that was new to me was by the most famous composer: Claude Debussy. His Piano Trio in G Minor was written when he was just eighteen years of age. The primary interest in this piece was the measure of how far the composer progressed from adolescence to full maturity, and how gifted he was at such an early age. But the work suffers from a lack of personality, with four movements that are ill-matched and cover a very narrow expressive range. The outstanding performance only served to underline the paucity of material.

On Sunday’s concert, the one new work to my ears was an attractive saxophone quartet by David Kechley called Stepping Out. Although there was no composition date in the program, it is safe to say that the piece was written in the 1990s, as it featured an easy-going, post-minimalist congeniality that I don’t think was possible before.

So again, the festival favored works from the last 100 years, but there was very little sign that the 20th century was a turbulent time in which the very nature of artistic expression was being called into question. This despite the fact that the faculty at the North Carolina School of the Arts runs the full range of musical tastes, from staunch conservatives of the standard repertoire to progressive explorers of new directions. Perhaps it’s not wise to draw any conclusions from one festival: after all, we could easily have ended up with just works from the 19th century. But the idea that the way we presented the 20th century might reflect more than pure chance gave me food for thought.

Coming away, I was reminded of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s comment: “I feel very twentieth-century, and not at all modern.” Was his perspective destined to become the prevailing wisdom?

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