Sunday, January 18, 2009

Oberlin Live! from the West Coast

Jan 11, 2009, 7:00PM
Palace of Fine Arts

eighth blackbird
The Prima Trio
Members of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble

Peter Schickele: Serenade for Three
Frederic Rzewski: Knight, Death and the Devil (2008)
Stephen Hartke: Meanwhile
Steve Reich: Double Sextet (2007)

I wish there were more well-programmed concerts of contemporary music like this. It started with the Prima Trio giving a bright & enthusiastic reading of the Schickele Serenade. It's an audience-friendly work, in 3 short movements, conventional in its tonality. The final movement, a theme & variations, features humorous solos for each player & was definitely reminiscent of Schickele's alter-ego, P.D.Q. Bach. The piece put the audience at ease & in a good mood.

Rzewski's Knight, Death and the Devil requires the 6 players of eighth blackbird plus a string quartet. This is a major work about war. It is in several short, fragmentary movements. Some of the movements sound like folksy songs & dances. Others are discordant, eerie, agitated or even violent. The players are sometimes called upon to make snorts, growls or guttural exhalations. In one theatrical solo, the percussionist smashes plates by hurling them & then transfers the broken chips into a metal bucket. In another movement, he stomps & kicks a metal trash can until it's crushed flat. The piece ends with a sad, introspective & inconclusive piano solo.

I found Knight, Death and the Devil to be an effective depiction of uncertainty, fear & dislocation. According to the program notes, the composer originally conceived this piece to be played while the audience looked at a large projected image of the Albrecht Dürer print of the same name. The print was reproduced in the program, but there was no projection at this performance.

Hartke's Meanwhile is a descriptive piece of exotic colors that often sounds like a gamelon or a kabuki play. The pianist starts the piece by playing Flexatones, which sound like small gongs with variable pitch. The percussionist also played a gong whose pitch he varied by lowering it into a box after he struck it.

The program ended with a Reich piece, requiring 2 ensembles of 6 players each, set up as mirror images of one another. It took a while to set up the stage because all the players needed to be miked. It's in 3 movements, each of them consisting of several sub-sections, clearly marked by musical gear shifts. The instruments enter in pairs or groups of 4. Once the piece starts, it's in non-stop rhythmic motion. The rhythms are hypnotic, & the music doesn't develop so much as simply proceed. One gets the feeling that one wrong entrance could derail the performance. It's also very mechanical & got me wondering how one differentiates between a technical proficient performance versus a great one.

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