On Sunday, February 18, 2018, the Pasadena Conservatory of Music hosted a faculty recital featuring the Panic Duo of Nick Gerpe and Pasha Tseitlin. A full concert program of contemporary music was performed, including a world premiere by Gilda Lyons, a Los Angeles premiere from Laura Kramer and music by Anne LeBaron, Jennifer Higdon, Juhi Bansal and Reena Esmail. Barrett Hall was completely filled for the occasion, and an extra row of chairs crowded the stage to accommodate the overflow crowd.

Fissure, for violin, piano and electronics (2016), by Anne LeBaron opened the concert. This piece was premiered by the Panic Duo in December, 2016 and is inspired by the Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe. The electronic recordings for this piece resulted from a visit by the composer to an upstate New York mansion that is said to be haunted. The title of the piece refers to the large structural crack in the Usher house that ultimately collapses at the end of the Poe story. Fissure opens with Gerpe entering from offstage, staggering into his seat at the piano. A short arpeggio is heard followed by a dramatic crash. Tseitlin arrives, walking slowly to center stage with soft mewing sounds emanating from his violin. A clattering is heard in the speakers accompanied by some uptempo runs in the instruments, all casting a mysterious and unsettling spell. The tension continues to build as the piece moves forward, with quiet stretches and piano trills alternating with agitated violin passages brimming with psychological anguish. The sounds of rushing wind and a deep rumbling from the recording added to the atmosphere. A sense of the theatrical persisted to the finish, with the violinist pacing restlessly about while playing softly, and then exiting offstage. Fissure is a remarkable portrayal of the Poe story, with all of the emotion and drama skillfully drawn out by the Panic Duo.

Whip the Devil Round the Stump (2017), by Juhi Bansal, followed. This began with complex and rapid runs in the piano accompanied by a series of slurred scales on the violin. The two instruments then traded phrases back and forth, often in counterpoint, and this made for a nicely interweaving texture. A slower section intervened, led by a solemn violin line and some low notes in the piano. The uptempo pacing returned at the finish with more shared passages and a moving, active feel. Whip the Devil Round the Stump is a robustly dynamic piece that extracts the maximum amount of energy from just two players.

Jhula Jhule (2013) by Reena Esmail was next and this piece was described as a “fantasia on two Indian folk songs.” Opening with a quiet, ethereal trill in the piano, the violin soon joined with slower phrases that invoked a warm and wistful feeling. An Indian lullaby was clearly one of the inspirations for this piece; the violin supplied the singing voice and the piano line gave a sense of nostalgic distance. The contrast between the piano and the sweetly light melody in the violin was especially effective – Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending came briefly to mind. The playing, especially in the violin, was strongly expressive resulting in a beautifully peaceful sensibility. Jhula Jhule is restful and tranquil – music that sits comfortably in the listener’s ear.

String Poetic (2006) by Jennifer Higdon followed, and this was based on five short pieces of poetry. The first movement, “Jagged Climb” began with short, deep chords in the piano and an active violin line that rushed ahead, seemingly out of control. Trills and rapid runs appeared in the piano, adding to the frenzied feel. Intricate phrases were heard in both instruments, right up to the sudden stop at the finish. By contrast “Nocturne”, the second movement, was soft and slow, with calm chords in the piano and solemn tones from the violin. A plaintive feel emerged, especially from Pasha Tseitlin’s sensitive playing. The tempo slowed towards a fading finish that left a strong residue of sadness.

The other movements, by contrast, were variously strident, tense, active and optimistic. The final movement, “Climb Jagged” was notably stirring, with short, rapid passages, especially in the agitated violin line. The fast pace and intersecting phrases highlighted the skillful and precise playing of the Panic Duo. String Poetic is a varied and intricate piece, deftly expressing many different colors and emotions from just two players.

The world premiere of Summoning Fire (2017) by Gilda Lyons followed, a work in three movements that included various extended techniques and vocalizing by the Panic Duo. In her preliminary remarks, the composer explained that knocking was an integral part of  her early childhood, received from her mother’s Nicaraguan lullabies and culture. Knocking on the piano case opened the first movement, “A Thousand Risen Suns”, and this became a touchstone for the entire piece. An incantation was sung by the players establishing a very primal feel. At one point the piano strings were strummed by hand and accompanied by a rapid violin line that added to the exotic flavor. The chanting and knocking seemed to increase in duration as this movement proceeded, firmly fixing the listener’s imagination in a remote Central American village. “I lift my lamp beside the golden door” was briefly sung – from the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. This suggested relocation to the United States from Nicaragua, immediately giving the piece a very contemporary political dimension. The knocking continued, fading to silence as the movement finished.

“Jezebel Spirit,” the second movement, began with a rapid and agitated violin line along with loud knocking and repeated shouts of “Hah!” The anxiety level increased  and a loud piano crash was followed by more shouting. To anyone following the news, this suggested an ICE raid and now the knocking wasn’t about soft lullabies in a rural village. The shouting became more persistent and the anxiety more pronounced in the instruments as this movement concluded. “As Goddesses Grace Us”, movement three, was in stark contrast to all the shouting with a quiet, chant-like singing of an old Irish prayer. This dramatic shift of cultural viewpoint was a brilliant stroke, framing the present immigration situation with that of the Irish past. The music here was very moving; another lullaby, but from a more familiar story. This served to make a powerful connection between the immigrants of today and others in American history – extending a bridge of common experience and empathy. Summoning Fire is a masterful working of cultural and contemporary materials that makes an important statement about our present immigration policy and what we have lost by it.

Reflections Through Shattered Mirrors (2017), by Laura Kramer was the final work on the program, and this was the Los Angeles premiere. The composer joined the Panic Duo on tenor saxophone and offered some brief remarks, stating that the four-movement piece was built around contrasting ideas. “Morphing Fractals”, the first movement, began with sharp tutti rhythms, rapid and intricate, that highlighted both the motion in the music and tight ensemble of the performers. The piano and saxophone solos that followed were adroitly played, and added to the solid feel amid the active sounds. “Parallels”, the second movement opened with a slower tempo and a more reflective sensibility provided by a line of deeply dark piano notes underneath. Expressive phrases from the violin and saxophone added to the drama, and the somber tone of this made for a strong contrast with the opening movement.

The third movement, “Frozen”, opened with a simple saxophone solo, echoed by the piano. The sax led with a short melody, and the other instruments followed in a question-and-answer fashion that created a feeling of searching and uncertainty. The violin then took up the melody, with the sax in reply, and the dialogue between the two made for some nice intermingling. The final movement, “Break” was low and mysterious at first, with an eclectic mix of sounds and extended techniques. Short, quiet phrases from the piano, and similarly subdued responses from the other two instruments, added to the enigma. About midway through, the tempo picked up and a series of animated and interconnected passages produced a feeling of anxiety. An evocative violin line added to this as the tempo surged and the volume increased. The tension grew until a grand pause halted the proceedings, and signaled a rapidly complex run downhill to the finish. Reflections Through Shattered Mirrors is a multidimensional work that successfully combines the three instruments into a cohesive whole while at the same time holding contrasting musical ideas in a balanced tension.