Shpachenko program illuminates composers’ edifice complex
Pianist Nadia Shpachenko returned to New York Friday night for a concert at Bargemusic that had one thinking of Martin Mull’s witty line: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
True, because music can be thought of, accurately, as abstract and ephemeral architecture, structured time rather than structured space. Shpachenko’s thematic program, “The Poetry of Places,” made this explicit with six new pieces “inspired by diverse buildings,” with handy pictures of each in the program notes.
Not that the music resembled any particular edifice. Music is music, mobile and fleeting, and even pieces that conform to the Golden Ratio or the principals of sacred architecture don’t sound like any particular building. With the setting sun backlighting the backdrop of the skyline of lower Manhattan, Shpachenko delivered a pleasing concert of music written about architecture.
Hannah Lash’s Give Me Your Songs was written during a residency at the Aaron Copland house, and is a response to the place and homage to the composer. The open harmonies are Copland-seque, while the repetitive, recursive phrases and broken pulse are of-the-moment post-minimalism, breaking into a fantasia. Ultimately, the forms don’t add up, and despite the etude-like technical challenges—which Shpachenko handled with precision and energy—the writing never takes full advantage of the piano’s resources.
Next was Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh. The buildings in question are Louis Kahn’s National Assembly complex in Bangladesh, and Spratlan’s piece is a five-part musical narrative of their construction. Full of melodic rhythm that built to each section, the piece sounds like both a tribute and the soundtrack to an unseen silent film. Shpachenko’s playing matched the verve of the writing, and she was in tune with the subtle but substantial sensitivity in the music.
Amy Beth Kirsten’s h.o.p.e., has a more abstracted and idiosyncratic take on architecture. Kirsten’s touchstone was Art Brut and the collection at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The title is an acronym for “Hang on, pain ends,” in the context a mantra for trauma survivors.
Scored for piano, toy piano, and with Shpachenko singing the title phrase, the music is deceptively simple. Two phrases are repeated and move in an out of phase at key points; but rather than hearing Steve Reich, the experience was that of hearing an innocent naïvety under assault, then overcoming that in this successful work.
Harold Meltzer was on hand to introduce his In Full Sail, an “attempt to translate into sound” the wavelike quality of Frank Gehry’s IAC Building. Through Shpachenko’s fluid performance the piece was easily heard as absolute music, an exploration of how rhythms, phrases, dynamics, and excellent counterpoint all work together to make invisible structures.
James Matheson was also on the barge for the word premiere of his Alone, in Waters Shimmering and Dark. The work describes the experience of observing a small house on a small island in the middle of a lake in upstate New York. His thoughts were about the fine line between solitude and loneliness, and the music was full of unexpected passion and turmoil, as if unleashing ideas that come best when one is alone. There was terrific, thrusting energy and rapid figurations, a few of which Shpachenko had to elide.
The finale was Jack Van Zandt’s Sí an Bhrú, the most ambitious work on the program. On the terms of meeting its programmatic goals, it was also the least successful with music that attempts toreflect the five-thousand-year-old Irish building Sí an Bhrú, likely the oldest building on the planet, and an astronomical calendar, and possibly a site for ritual musical performance. Van Zandt’s piece conveyed no sense of structure and architecture outside of musical concerns.
But the work is well crafted. Shpachenko gradually pulled the opening threads together, and the alternation of moods and materials throughout the entire work gives it a satisfying sonata shape and function.