A Brightwork Newmusic concert was staged at Boston Court Pasadena on Saturday, March 18, 2023. A program of intensely complex music was performed, including pieces by Khachaturian and Bartok from the 1930s and three works by contemporary composers. Aron Kallay, pianist, Shalini Vijayan, violin and Brian Walsh on clarinet comprised the highly talented Brightwork trio of Los Angeles area musicians. The intimate Marjorie Branson Performance Space at Boston Court, which underwent some upgrades during the pandemic, was perfectly suited to the ensemble, the music and the audience.
The concert opened with Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano (1932) by Aram Khachaturian, consisting of three movements. Khachaturian was born in Tiblisi, Georgia in 1903 and was strongly influenced by the traditional folk music and dominant Armenian culture of this remote Russian province. The 1917 Russian revolution, civil war and subsequent incorporation of Georgia into the Soviet Union were significant events in his early adulthood. Khachaturian moved to Moscow to study music and eventually enrolled as a composition student at the Moscow Conservatory. Growing up in remote Armenia, enduring great political turmoil in his formative years and then submitting to the rigors of the Moscow Conservatory resulted in music of powerful expressive intensity combined with an affable exotic charm.
These attributes are on full display in Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. The first movement “Andante con dolore, con molto espressione” opened with a series of pensive piano chords that became stronger on each repeat. The violin and clarinet soon entered, each with independent lines, weaving in and around each other. Aron Kallay’s piano contributed a swirl of notes, increasing the density of the texture dramatically. With the andante tempo, the feeling is solemn, yet very expressive, especially when the violin line soars in sustained tones over the moving lines below. A mix of slow phrases were followed by more rapid passages and the precision of the three players working through these complex interactions was impressive.
The second movement, “Allegro”, increases the pace significantly and independent lines pour rapidly out from each instrument. The phrasing, although complex and driven by a faster tempo, was maintained in superb cohesion – a further testament to the technical skill of the ensemble. The feeling was wide, expansive and grand. “Moderato”, the final movement, opens with a lovely clarinet solo from Brian Walsh that is answered by the piano. Fast passages follow, the clarinet doubling the violin, with both remaining solidly on pitch. As the movement proceeds, the interplay between the three instruments evolves beautifully. Echoes of folk music are heard amid powerful conventional 20th century gestures. Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano is a masterful mix of Khachaturian’s musical influences, skillfully performed by the Brightwork ensemble.
Jasper Drag (2000) by Alvin Singleton followed. The title refers to the horrific 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr., a black man, who was beaten by three white men and then dragged behind a pickup truck for three miles near Jasper, Texas. This piece was originally commissioned by Michigan State University for the Verdehr Trio. The opening is a series of solemn, two-note piano chords, separated by brief silences. The clarinet enters first with low, then very high pitches that establish an unsettling atmosphere. The violin and piano enter in their turns with solo passages that add to a rising sense of distress. A long sustained clarinet tone is heard against an agitated violin, effectively increasing the tension. The ensemble occasionally plays together, but usually proceeds with independent lines. Overall, there is a certain austerity present, even in the more active sections. There are stretches of churning tutti, but the instruments mostly take their turns playing singly, sustaining the general feeling of anxiety.
This music is not a metaphor for the barbarity of the crime; there are no long wailing passages or over-the-top pyrotechnics. The feeling is rather one of deep shame for an unspeakable act of violence that has escaped from a dark past into our presumably enlightened present. Jasper Drag eloquently articulates the condemnation of a society where such an atrocity is still possible.
Dash (2001), by Jennifer Higdon was next and this began with a crash of sound from the entire ensemble. Every instrument boldly proclaimed each note, and the dynamic never diminished throughout the entire piece. The tempo was fast and the complexity of the independent lines compared favorably with the earlier Khachaturian piece. The attention to technical detail by the Brightwork trio was remarkable; it seemed as if every instrument was furiously playing all the time. Throughout, there was a joyful and rowdy feeling as the piece charged along with a seemingly endless supply of high energy. Dash might have been inspired by the relentless ride that is our daily life.
Sea Change (2009), by Pamela Madsen was next and this was something completely different. Madsen, who has created large scale works, chose the trio for this piece as a more direct way to focus her composition with its sympathetic view to ecology and the environment. The piece was preceded by a short poetic narration that ended with “You are most loved, most lost, most beautiful.” Simple and direct, the opening passages consisted of lovely repeating lines with gently moving parts in the violin and piano, sustained supporting tones from the clarinet. This was in a mild dynamic and moderate tempo, creating a stately and organic feel. The ensemble nicely evoked an aqueous sense of flow and movement, always shifting and on the move, but static in form. All of this made for a contrast to the charged and often furious music heard in the first half of the concert. As Sea Change continued it slowly gathered momentum, getting louder, faster and more syncopated. By the finish, however, the sea had changed again, dropping back into the easy restraint of the opening. Sea Change was astutely programmed for this point in the concert program and gave the Brightwork ensemble a chance to present a more intimate sound.
The final work on the concert program was Contrasts (1938) by Bela Bartok. Built around a series of dance forms, Contrasts was in keeping with the energy and vigor of the opening trio by Khachaturian, and made a fine bookend to the concert. The first movement, “Verbunkos (Recruiting Dance)”, began with a strong staccato melody in the clarinet, a pizzicato line in the violin and robust rhythms in the piano. A portentous, late 1930’s atmosphere was immediately established in the mind of the listener. There was a slightly out-of-control feel to this that never let up, perhaps evoking the inept dancing of enthusiastic soldiers. Overall it was strident, powerful and loud with an ominous undertone. The clarinet playing was particularly expressive with a number of complex and over-the-top passages.
“Pihenő (Relaxation)”, the second movement, was slow, quiet and full of sustained notes from the clarinet and violin. A low rumbling in the piano carried forward the sinister undertone that was present in the first movement. “Pihenő” provided a tense quiet after the spirited “Verbunkos” the but the disconcerting line in the piano added further gloom. The tension was nicely sustained by the ensemble as the piece continued along until it faded away in a mysterious finish.
The final movement was “”Sebes (Fast Dance)” and this marked the return to a lively tempo and strong dynamics. The resolute tutti phrasing included a roiling texture in both the piano and clarinet that built into a series of shouts. The rapid rhythms and complex surfaces were nevertheless artfully negotiated by the players. After a brief pause, the tempo slowed and the sounds became more sustained and languid. Only the piano persisted with its darker line underneath. A dark descent followed before a sudden jump back into the rush of technically difficult passages and labyrinthine lines. A very rapid violin solo was expertly performed by Ms. Vijayan and the rest of the ensemble then joined in for a furious tutti finish.
Bartok is perhaps most familiar to us through his well-known Concerto for Orchestra, a restrained and atmospheric work written during World War II. Contrasts is a much more animated and provocative piece that brings to life all of the anxieties present prior to the outbreak of the war. In the same way, the Khatchaturian piece, Jasper Drag and Jennifer Higdon’s Dash also reflected their own contemporary apprehensions. Pamela Madsen’s Sea Change gave us the space and contrast necessary for an appreciative comparison. We are fortunate in Los Angeles to have musicians capable of performing this important music at such a high level.