On Sunday, October 1, 2023 the Pasadena Conservatory of Music presented Shred, the first of two Wicked GOAT programs scheduled for the 2023/24 season in their Contemporary Music for Young People concert series. Barrett Hall was filled with a capacity crowd that included a gratifying number of well-behaved youngsters. A variety of contemporary compositions, dating from from 1959 to 2020 were presented, including pieces by John Adams, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon and Andrew Norman. Top Los Angeles area musicians were on hand to perform the seven pieces that were accessible, lively, abstract and engaging. All were thoughtfully programmed and constituted an excellent introduction to contemporary music for all ages.
The first work on the program was Short Ride In a Fast Machine, by John Adams. This was composed in 1986 and is one Adams’ more popular pieces. For this concert, the four-hands piano arrangement of 2018 was performed by Kathryn Eames and Nic Gerpe of the Pasadena Conservatory faculty. This opens with a series of fast arpeggios in the upper registers accompanied by syncopated rhythms in the middle registers. Powerful chords soon appear among the technically tricky passages. All 20 of the fingers on the keyboard were kept busy and the intensity of the sound added to the feeling of speed and power. There was excellent coordination between the two players given the intertwining phrases, broken rhythms and forceful dynamics. A strong finish and an unexpectedly sudden halt brought the Short Ride In a Fast Machine to an appropriate ending. The audience responded to this lively and engaging piece with vigorous applause.
Kaleidoscope (1959), by John Corigliano followed, performed by Ms. Eames and Mr. Gerpe now seated at separate pianos. Kaleidoscope was written over 60 years ago, but this is a decidedly abstract piece and remains relevant as contemporary music. John Corigliano is a highly regarded composer, who, at 85, continues to be an important influence. The work starts out with sharp, rapid passages in each piano, filled with complex rhythms and layering. Close coordination by the players keeps this fast section cohesive. A slower stretch appears and this allows the listener to catch a breath. The level of abstraction here remains high but is generally more melodic. The slower tempo and calmer rhythms make for a more stately and less severe feeling. After this brief respite, the tempo and dynamics again pick up and the broken rhythms and multiple layers return with a forceful and confident feeling. Kaleidoscope continues to be an effective piece and the audience seemed to appreciate it despite its formidable complexity.
Zoom Tube (1999), by Ian Clarke was next, performed by Sarah Wass. This piece is scored for solo flute and proved to be something completely different. Ms. Wass offered a few preliminary remarks to the audience describing some of the extended techniques and pitch bending that is included in Zoom Tube. This began with a soft rushing sound of air, absent of any musical pitch. Soon, a few familiar notes could be heard among the blowing sounds and the rattle of key pads on the flute. Ms. Wass manged also to hum a few tones into the air stream. The rhythms were lively and the sounds issuing from the flute were a collection of the familiar and the unusual. A ghostly melody could be heard underneath the airy sounds along with conventional musical notes. A sudden ‘yeow’ was vocalized by Ms. Wass, just before the piece concluded. The preponderance of unfamiliar flute sounds in Zoom Tube did not seem to discourage the audience, who appreciated the effort by Ms. Wass in bringing this unusual music to the stage.
Perhaps the most relentlessly abstract piece on the program was Dual Velocity (1998), by Pierre lalbert. This was performed by Nic Gerpe on piano and Timothy Loo, the excellent cellist of the Lyris String Quartet. Mr. Gerpe opened with a few preliminary remarks describing the complex rhythmic patterns, independent lines and the inclusion of quarter tones present in Dual Velocity. Accordingly, the piece opened with a few soft cello notes followed by a rapid rise in the dynamics, the tempo and the increasingly convoluted rhythms. This created an exotic, almost middle eastern feel. The piano then entered with mysterious, short phrases that rapidly devolved into complicated patterns both fast and very abstract. The two instrument lines were completely independent, adding to the already intricate texture. The coordination between the players was all the more remarkable given the technical challenges present in the playing. There were slower sections but these always gave way to faster stretches that tested the limits of the performer’s virtuosity. Dual Velocity is a strong dose of the complexity typical of contemporary new music and the masterful playing heard in this concert did much to keep it intelligible.
Dash (2001), by Jennifer Higdon was next, and this was performed by Sarah Wass on flute, Pat Posey on saxophone and Katelyn Vahala, piano. Pat Posey offered some preliminary comments stating that the piece was “Fast, like a race…” And so it was. The rapid opening of notes running up and down the scales set a torrid pace as all three instruments contributed to the frantically busy feel. The rushed feeling in the music was in keeping with the composer’s intention of evoking the fast pace of our contemporary life. No doubt many parents in the audience could relate. The rhythms were engaging, intricate and always hasty, adding to the flat-out scramble. The saxophone added a warmer timbral touch, making the overall feeling just that much more relatable. The three performers exhibited excellent technique and coordination in this very challenging piece.
Running Spring (2020) was next, composed and realized by Los Angeles – based Alexander Elliott Miller. This was performed on electric guitar in conjunction with a formidable amount of digital processing. Miller explained that this piece was inspired by his penchant for long distance running during the pandemic. Accordingly, Running Spring began with a number quick plinking sounds, evoking perhaps the first few steps of a run. These seemed to be looped and the rhythms suggested continuous movement. More sounds were added, building into a nice variety and the piece continued at a steady, comfortable pace. There was an introspective feel to this, much like the way jogging lets the mind focus on ideas and the abstract. A faster tempo marked a sprint to the finish. Running Spring puts many different sounds under the control of a single player, impressively expanding the creative possibilities.
The final work on the concert was Gran Turismo (2010) by Andrew Norman. This was scored for eight violins and enlisted the services of most of the best string players in Los Angeles. All were conducted by Jens Hurty. A good thing the ensemble had a conductor, because the piece began as a fast scramble of sounds that nicely evoked the chaotic starting of a motor car race. All the violins seemed to have separate lines, only occasionally connected by related rhythms. Overlapping phrases rapidly piled up one upon another, creating a wonderfully abstract texture. The virtuosity and control that was on display here was exceptional and great waves of sound washed out into the audience. Gran Turismo was in the same lane as the earlier Dash, both being effective commentaries on speed combined with recklessness. The audience responded to the tremendous effort fut forth by the eight violinists with heartfelt applause.
This GOAT concert was as complex and abstract as any, yet managed to be accessible and entertaining to an audience that was generally not familiar with contemporary music. A post-concert reception afterwards in the garden was a chance to meet and greet. Pasadena Conservatory students were on hand to perform popular music covers and their playing was both impressive and polished.
The GOAT concert series are a fine outreach to the community. The next GOAT concert will be Sunday, March 24, 2024 at 4:00 PM.
The violinists performing Gran Turismo were: