Craft and virtuosity spotlighted in the fascinating music of Gheorghe Costinescu
The composer Gheorghe Costinescu is part of a story of music in New York that is increasingly lost to time—that of immigrant and first-generation artists with deep roots in the European history of the Western classical tradition, and who are learned in the “ism” of the 20th century and electronic music, but who held their own voice, values, and path. While never achieving the cachet of relative fame, many have nonetheless created a substantial amount of fine music.
Costinescu—born in Bucharest in 1934 and a New Yorker since 1969—had his art and life celebrated Tuesday night at Merkin Concert Hall in a fascinating program titled “Gheorghe Costinescu at 80, 45 years in New York.” The program, presented by the American Composers Alliance and friends of Costincescu, featured some of his finest compositions, which also encompassed film and electronic music.
The most immediate and salient feature of Costinescu’s style is sheer virtuosity, which was apparent seconds after pianist Stephen Gosling opened the concert with the Sonata (written in 1957 and revised fifty years later). This is not virtuosity as mere display, but as expressive means, the composer releasing a torrent of ideas.
The Sonata begins with a dramatic, fortissimo chord, then quickly moves towards a dense flow of notes shaped to rise to a point of intense crisis. In three movements that follow the classic sonata form, and with hints of Bartók and jazz, the music puts what feels like dense experience and powerful intellect into exhilarating, physical action.
Gosling is one of the most impressive and important young pianists on the scene, with the facility to clearly render the most complex and difficult music. He gave the Sonata—and, at the close of the first half, the equally virtuosic and expressive Essay in Sound (2011)—his all.
After intermission, Gosling also accompanied the great soprano Lucy Shelton in Nine Portraits From the Wild, written last year. Costinescu wrote the text for these aphoristic songs, with words that mostly paint the sounds of animals, including crickets, bullfrogs, butterflies and fish. The accompaniment is full of delicate effects, like strumming, and Shelton’s beguiling theatrical interpretation showed that the composer has as much charm and humor as he does determination and intensity.
The other virtuosic piece was Voices Within (1989), for solo violin, played by Cyrus Stevens. Where the piano music was muscular, the violin music was often wispy and keening, the intensity coming through via the sharp edge of a blade, rather than a hammer. The expression was internalized, but, after a sparse opening, no less rich. There was an imperceptible transition to a stream-of-consciousness type flow, marked by an arresting use of expressive vibrato from Stevens and the composer. There is silvery writing high on the E string of the instrument, and rapid figurations through which Stevens produced a haunting sound that had a lingering effect.
The final piece on the concert was unusual and effective; Jubilus, from 1984, scored for soprano, trumpet, and a percussionist who makes sounds with the body. The music is full of bright, nervous energy, and puts the emphasis on rhythm—even the counterpoint between the trumpet (Aaron Kahn) and the soprano (Yungee Rhie) was driven by punchy attacks and syncopated phrases. With the percussionist—the excellent David Rozenblatt—stamping, snapping his fingers, and shouting, and the soprano singing wordless syllables, the music was a joyful combination of ritual and dance. Conductor Jeremy Gill kept up a sharp pace.
Interspersed amongst these pieces were films and electronic music (often a combination of both), that showed a composer with a rare range of creativity. Costinescu’s One Minute Tribute: 9/11/2001 (a world premiere) was an animated film of a photograph by Dan Nguyen of the pillars of light that once a year fill the voids left by the World Trade Center towers, accompanied by a percussion piece in the style of Varese’s Ionisation. Unlike the many literal, maudlin musical commemorations of 9/11, this piece was succinct and left the listener to provide their own, personal response.
Synesthesia was an excellent animation from Michel Gagné of Costinescu’s Dots, Lines, and Patches, a fine electronic music piece from 1973. Played without visual accompaniment was the composer’s City Waves: A Portrait in Sound in New York, a well-crafted mix of electronic sounds and city noises—dogs barking, handball playing, helicopters, subway announcements—made with the assistance of his students at Lehman College.
There were also two animated films that Costinescu himself made, Tai Chi on the Hudson—another world premiere—and Animated Sounds, an excerpt from his theatrical work The Musical Seminar. Costinescu is a rough animator, but the plain simplicity of his drawings, though odd at first, rapidly becomes clear and effective. The Tai Chi piece is a series of drawings from a class he observed, the positions underscored by flowing music for string quartet, recorded by the Voxare String Quartet.
Animated Sounds is set to a 1982 recording of the larger work, live at Tanglewood, and the self-referentiality—it’s a theater work about musicians—was reinforced by the figures moving about and across the score itself. Like everything else on the concert, the films were an expression of the necessity of expression and the pleasure in craft.