Bargemusic opens new year with mixed feast of new music

Fri Jan 02, 2015 at 12:33 pm
Ursula Oppens was among the artists performing at the Bargemusic New Year's Day concert. Photo: Hilary Scott

Ursula Oppens was among the artists performing at the Bargemusic New Year’s Day concert. File photo: Hilary Scott

For classical music, the end of the year means a lot of low-risk programming, crowd-pleasing favorites set on repeat through the years. So the surprise for the first weekend of the year is the Here and Now Winter Festival at Bargemusic, four days of new music, almost all of which are world or New York premieres. Opening on the night of New Year’s Day, the festival program varied broadly, but the chance to hear something new offers its very own quality.

The satisfying pieces on the program shared the value of holding a modest ambition and, with that limit, finding a clear and individual expression. The compositions that did not succeed also shared a particular value, an aesthetic beholden to traditional classical forms and structures. This is the enduring dichotomy between new thinking and merely making new versions of familiar things.

The concert began in unexpected style, with James Nyoraku Schlefer walking slowly up the aisle from the back of the barge, playing the world premiere of his Brooklyn Tsuru no Sugomori (Life of the Cranes), on shakuhachi.

The piece had an improvisatory feel, though it was not possible to tell how much was extemporaneous and how much was preparation conveyed through his excellent, expressive playing. Combining a traditional, ritualistic manner with a Western idea of functional harmony, the music sounded natural to the time and place, the cranes standing alongside skyscrapers, the river marked by the lights of passing tugs.

Ursula Oppens, the great pianist, played Amy Williams’ Falling, a brief exercise in impressionistic technique. About as long as a Chopin Prelude, the music was centered around a single note, repeated with a syncopated rhythm above the sustain pedal. Around this, a melody is fractured along the extent of the keyboard, turning what might be shapely in a single register into an intriguing, angular line. It ended with a concise romantic statement.

One of the longest and most impressive works was Annie Gosfield’s Burn Again with a Low Blue Flame, for cello and electronics, played in its New York premiere with focus by Michael Nicolas. Gosfield uses only a small amount of material, yet the music expands into an engrossing twenty minutes. Nicolas played sustained pitches against an eerie, mechanized ensemble of recorded fragments from other Gosfield pieces. The acoustic and electronic sounds meshed well, and the performance was an involving expression of Gosfield’s ambivalence towards modern technology.

Also using technology, and using it well, was a world premiere from Rob Davidson, played by pianist Sonya Lifschitz. The Art of Agony starts with, and is based on, an old radio interview with Percy Grainger. Davidson derives the music from the speaking voices in the manner of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, then goes further and turns his musical materials into a rousing, Spanish-tinged song, with some fine expository writing.

In the same set, Lifschitz played Brett Dean’s Equality and Prayer, two short works for speaking pianist. The words come from Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig, one a slightly absurd prayer, the other the slogan that “All men are bastards!/We will fight for equality until all women are bastards too!” The first bit of music was slow and sparse, the second toccata-like, and Lifschitz handled the challenge of playing and dramatic speaking with confidence and aplomb.

She was followed by composer and string player Ljova, with the last worthy work on the program. An untitled world premiere, the music emphasized his musicianship, but was not a simple jam. Playing the “fadolin,” a six-string violin, Ljova used a looping pedal to build a complex bed of rhythm and harmony, over which he played a lovely, folk-like tune, adding some well-chosen embellishments. The loose feel of the rhythm and pulse, yet the way everything held together and how easily the music came to a clear point, showed that a good deal of forethought and preparation went into the performance.

On the unsuccessful side, pianist Marc Peloquin played the last set of the first half, the world premiere of David Shohl’s Flight Thirteen, Fugue on the name Del Tredici, followed by David Del Tredici’s Mandengo. Flight Thirteen was not a true fugue, the music kept abandoning fugal means almost as soon as they started, jumping to direct variation of the main theme. But the variations were dropped as well, the piece constantly switching between different ideas without ever letting one speak. Packed with information in a short duration, nothing cohered.

Del Tredici’s piece felt 1,000 times as long. In contrast to Shohl, his Chopin/American Songbook/silent movie music mash-up moved from cliché to cliché, wandered past multiple natural endings, and said far less with far more notes.

The finale to the concert was also problematic. The Horszowski Trio—violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Raman Ramakrishman, and pianist Reiko Aizawa—played two more world premieres, Mills’ Painted Shadows and Roger Stubbiefield’s ¡Ostifugo! (after Caprice Viennois).

Mills indicated to the audience that his piece was conceived, completed and brought to the performance within the past few weeks, and the almost complete lack of organization, along with the first-draft quality of the material, was obvious. Stubbiefield’s piece had more professional craft, and carried good forward-moving energy, but the canonic structure and variations came off as more an exercise than a meaningful composition.

The Here and Now Festival continues through January 4.

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