Wheeler, Hoffman works fare best at Here and Now Festival

Sat Jan 05, 2019 at 12:00 pm
Woori Kim performed Joel Hoffman's "étude—pour les symetries" Friday night at Bargemusic.

Woori Kim performed Joel Hoffman’s “étude—pour les symetries” Friday night at Bargemusic.

For several years now, Bargemusic has filled the fallow periods on the classical music scene at the end of each summer and beginning of each new year with their Here and Now festivals. Compared to most concerts that feature new pieces, even world premieres, Here and Now is a genial, even casual affair. 

The musicians and composers heard at the Friday night opener are serious about the music they present, of course, but there is no high-pressure atmosphere. So composer Scott Wheeler could introduce the world premiere of his Whispered Sarabande for solo violin—played by Mark Peskanov—by saying this would be the first time Wheeler would hear the piece played in full.

The music was succinct and stylish, played with wit. A repeated theme strung together a series of notes articulated halfway between staccato and a Jeté bowing. In between, brief wisps of sarabande form came through, like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This was intriguing and coalesced into a brief moment of almost-Bach that was warm and lovely. Whispered Sarabande was smarter than its initial modesty indicated, and was one of the best things on the program.

The other was étude—pour les symetries, composed by Joel Hoffman and played by pianist Woori Kim, who had recently premiered the work in the company of Debussy’s second book of Etudes. Hoffman’s technical challenge was to write in a way that had both hands operating symmetrically, the same digits in use in mirror-image directions for both hands.

This made for scintillating music, especially with Kim’s commanding performance. The writing was inherently dynamic, naturally producing counterpoint and harmonic rhythm. Beyond that Hoffman shaped the material into a well-formed piece.

Most everything else was not at the level of those works. Dina Pruzhansky’s Under the Red Moon had a dramatic linear narrative, but no sustained ideas other than a mood of foreboding. The performance by the Semplice Players and their Quartet-for-the-End-of-Time instrumentation sounded stiff and brittle.

Cellist Julian Schwarz and pianist Marika Bournaki premiered Silent for the Rain, by Alex Weiser. Adapted from an original version for voice and percussion, Schwarz played the singing lines that opened the piece with a lovely, throaty sound. The music didn’t follow up this strong initial statement, and lost direction.

Robert Kendall brought his Brevis historia mundi, a suite for viola and piano that was premiered by Andrew Gonzalez, accompanied by Maxwell Foster. Less a history of the world than a representation of birth, life, and death, there was a pleasing Brahmsian quality to the work, but the lack of any substantial music in a major key gave it a monotonous, pessimistic tone.

Concluding the night were Here and Now stalwarts Daniel Schnyder and David Taylor. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Schnyder and composer and bass-trombonist Taylor (joined by cellist Cécile Grüebler) commingled their works in one mutual set, complete with their usual relaxed, friendly/goofy stage banter.

Schnyder brought arrangements of melodies he had written for orchestras, Taylor contributed Suite Ghironda Galumphtoso—a world premiere—that presented four different musical views of an organ grinder and his dancing monkey, inspired by “Der Leiermann” From Die Winterreise.

Schnyder’s music is full of jazz and it works as composed, ensemble music, especially with him playing his own lively, snaking melodies on saxophone. In bulk the character of each grew hard to separate from the others—his Ballad and Riffs, which honored Bernstein’s centennial, had a wonderful, song-like quality, but an evening-concluding medley that purported to survey a musical journey from Zürich to Berlin didn’t get far.

Taylor favors an expressionism that balances, Weill-like, on the edge of mordancy and sarcasm, reflected in the suite.There was a haunting quality about it, and at its best—like the opening alto flute/bass-trombone duet—extended “Der Leiermann” into mysterious and tragic territory. But the music also indulged in Taylor’s reflexes toward swing and archness, both of which made the unusual ordinary.

Here and Now Winter Festival continues with most of this program repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. bargemusic.org

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