Safety first with Da Capo Chamber Players’ underwhelming evening of new music

Tue Sep 19, 2017 at 11:57 am
The Da Capo Chamber Players performed Monday night at Merkin Concert Hall. Photo: JIll LeVIne

The Da Capo Chamber Players performed Monday night at Merkin Concert Hall. Photo: Jill LeVine

When we’re young, we know everything.

That was the impression left by most of the composers on the Da Capo Chamber Players’ program Monday night at Merkin Concert Hall. Nine pieces, all by composers under 40, and all (with a few important exceptions) as safe, comfortable, and neatly organized as a bed at the Ritz-Carlton.

The premiere of Christian Li’s Loop Music was emblematic. Li’s program notes argued for something vaguely profound about cyclic forms, which have been ubiquitous worldwide for thousands of years. This layered pedantry over the work’s routinely predictable repeated patterns and regular phrases. It was only in the final section that the music made any use of the skills of this excellent ensemble.

Inside the precise rhythms, crisp rising and falling phrases, and simple harmonic motion, nothing on the program was objectionable. Nor was much of anything very interesting.

Will Healy’s Etudes for Melancholy Robots, played by the superb pianist Steven Beck, were well-made responses to Debussy, full of clever switchbacks and with a real understanding of what a good musician can do at the instrument. But they too evaporated quickly. Scott Lee’s Bottom Heavy offered a rather stiff translation of hip hop and New Orleans marching bands to the Da Capo’s Pierrot ensemble—much more John Bonham than anything else.

Tonia Ko’s Hum Phenomenon was a basic exercise in atmosphere. Mike Bono’s Sunday (a world premiere for the whole ensemble) provided a relief from all this and  was impressive in it’s own right, capturing that Ivesian quality of complex, ethereal harmonies and phrases that seem to come out of the listener’s memories.

The opening of the second half set the previous music in painful and unflattering relief. Specifically, the first two of the four pieces on the second half; Mario Diaz de Leon’s Altar of Two Serpents, for two alto flutes, and Anthony Cheung’s pithy, aggressive solo cello piece, Distance Over Speed, played by Chris Gross.

From the first intertwined phrases, spat out with a whisper by flutists Patricia Spencer and Jayn Rosenfeld, one was reminded what compositional imagination and craft were, and what music can achieve as art. In contrast to the banal neatness heard earlier, Two Altars and Distance Over Speed had the kind of seeming disorder that is the product of skilled, barely visible structure and the ability to notate music with a clarity and specificity that inspires musicians and feeds them expressive material to relish.

Where in the first half forms were not only achingly clear but the predominant aesthetic, these two works were gripping and sensual precisely because their sounds and directions were both constantly surprising and logical. There was an extra amount of energy coming off the players, who clearly found the music exciting to play.

Yet with Hannah Lash’s Adjoining, a violin and piano duo played by Curtis Macomber and Beck, the brief thrill was gone. In the context that had just been established, Adjoining was bizarre. Even with Macomber and Beck’s commanding, expressive playing, the music was stuffy and vapid, from 1915 rather than the completion date of 2015. Lash’s hand-waving, obfuscatory program note—”language that intimates tonal hierarchies which create strong directionality”—tried to give her exercise in basic compositional technique the façade of revelation.

Wrapping up the evening on the downslope was Pascal Le Boeuf’s Media Control and its forgettable regular eighth-notes and diatonic harmonies. The audience found all this satisfying, and there’s no reason to begrudge their pleasure. But for the composers, one wonders just what their goals might be. Being the next Mason Bates seems to be what some are shooting for.

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