American vitality heats up a chilly night at Spectrum

Fri Nov 14, 2014 at 12:05 pm
Music of Fred Rzewski was performed at Spectrum Thursday night.

Music of Fred Rzewski was performed at Spectrum Thursday night.

Classical music is more than just the music, there’s the business of it as well.

The music side is challenging enough for composers and musicians; the business side is endlessly daunting. Even large-scale, heavily funded institutions like the Metropolitan Opera struggle with money problems, and although Mozart and Beethoven are consistent draws, in their lifetimes each was worn down by the Scylla and Charybdis of getting paid and paying the bills.

There’s no surprise, then, when a concert of modern and contemporary music, especially when the pieces are predominately from American composers, draws an audience of just a dozen paying customers. But neither is there consolation—when the compositions and playing are as fine as they were Thursday night at Spectrum, one is left with the stimulation and pleasure of the experience and a lingering, slightly bitter aftertaste.

The concert was in Spectrum’s “Eavesdropping Series,” curated by the composer Guy Barash. Pianist Stephen Drury, artistic director of the Callithumpian Consort, and ensemble violinist Gabriela Diaz—joined by clarinetist Christopher Bush—played pieces firmly within the ongoing classical tradition. There were two works from the recently departed composer Lee Hyla, two from Charles Ives, one by Fred Rzewski and the impromptu programming of a contemporary solo clarinet piece.

Hyla died this past June at the still young age of 61, leaving behind an impressive body of work and a personal and musical influence that extends deep into the generation of musicians and composer who have come after him. He was one of the few composers who were able to successfully incorporate elements of rock and jazz (especially free jazz) without the common problems of awkward rhythms and embarrassing condescension.

His art was well-represented by two solo works; Basic Training for piano and Passeggiata for violin. Drury opened the concert with the piano piece, which he played with vigor and sensitivity. The music starts aggressively, alternating single notes and spread-out, dissonant chords. Hyla worked with tonality and dissonance, and crafted complex, through-composed music made firmer and weightier by allowing plenty of internal space and silence.

With each musical moment set against that space, the ear is drawn into Hyla’s rigor and clarity. Breaking a long structural line into fragmented phrases, the music follows the simple form of loud-quiet-loud. Winding up into dense, agitated activity, it then grows introspective. The quiet music is unsettled at first then subtly gains assurance, leading into a louder, swaggering conclusion. About a minute before the end, there is a series of chords that all but break into Mahler’s Adagietto, and the moment, under the intelligent hands of Drury, was magic.

The involving Passeggiata is even more two-fisted, the chopped-up, alternating line more extreme and the sensibility more romantic, almost an homage to Berg. The line is almost vocalized, concluding with a curt, dramatic gesture. The music was co-commissioned by Midori and Vadim Repin, and Diaz played it beautifully. She has a powerful attack, full sound, and makes every phrase sound ideally realized and full of musical and emotional meaning.

Drury also played the lovely, swaggering “Down by the Riverside,” from Rzewski’s North American Ballads. His parlor-manners approach had less swing and lilt in the folk melody, but paid off in his intense exploration of the composer’s brilliant variations on the tune.

After Bush’s strong, confident performance of a new solo clarinet piece, Monologue, by Soo Jung Park, Drury and Diaz played Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 2. Perhaps it was Ives’ forbidding reputation that kept the audience small, though this was at least the third performances of the piece in New York this year.

The music is some of Ives’ best, distilling his transcendent iconoclasm into some of his most transparent writing—Ives at his most sensual. Drury deferred to Diaz, and her musicality was commanding and expressive.  With playing that was muscular and gentle in equal parts, Diaz’s rendering was full of humanity and humor in the “In the Barn” movement. This terrific performance was followed and equalled by the trio of musicians playing Ives’ haunting Largo, an unsettling yet consoling way to send the fortunate few out into the cold, dark night.

The “Eavesdropping Series” continues December 11

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