Zachary Cooper: Caterpillar Secrets (premiere)
Peter Hamlin: Visions of Ice (premiere)
Olivier Messiaen: Le rouge-gorge (The Robin) from Petites esquisses d’oiseaux
Olivier Messiaen: Par Lui tout a été fait (By Him everything was made) from Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus
Chan Ka Nin: I Think That I Shall Never See….
The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble describes their fall program – Kissed by the Wild – as “music inspired by the natural world”. That idea is embodied in both the concept and form of the music itself. It’s also carried out in the woody, expansive resonances of the cello and piano, and the myriad of chirping, warbling, voicings coaxed from the clarinet and flute of the VCME’s talented performers.
I sat next to a man named Jim at last night’s concert. With an apologetic half-shrug he bashfully described himself as ‘old fashioned’ when we talked at intermission, after I asked what he had thought of the first half: Cooper’s colorful Caterpillar Secrets, and Hamlin’s starkly contrasting Visions of Ice. I was thinking maybe Mozart or Bach, but it turns out that Jim’s tastes run more toward Leadbelly and traditional folk roots. “But,” he added, “I really liked this.” So did I.
It’s always especially exciting to be in the audience for the premiere of a new piece, much less two, as filled up the entire first half of this concert. These two new works were complementary yet completely different in character. The sunny lyricality of Cooper’s whimsical Caterpillars was very soon matched by the cool, sharp, whispering soundscape of Hamlin’s Visions (inspired – and accompanied by – his wife Chris Robbins’ detailed closeup photos of eight different ice formations). Like the first frigid breeze that whips the leaves from the branches at the end of an Indian summer afternoon, Visions‘ presence was punctuated by gusts of glissandi from the alto flute and clarinet, alternating and combining with the cello’s plucking and raspy bowing, all accented with Peter Hamlin’s real-time electronic replay.
Visions‘ musical geneology is loosely rooted in the specialized genre of compositions exemplified by landmarks like Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales (for orchestra and taped whale song) and Einojuhani Rautavaara’s marvelous Cantus Arcticus (with pre-recorded bird song captured near the Arctic Circle). Both of these pieces were conceived in the early 1970s (1970 and 1972, respectively) – not coincidentally, at the very same time newly awakened eco-awareness marked the downbeat for the environmental movement, the first Earth Day (1970) and the worldwide Earth Art movement.
Where Visions branches off from the genre is in its technique: the electronic overlay is an organic product of real-time creation, not pre-recording. The composer, Peter Hamlin, had a small table set up in front of the stage, facing the performers, just to the left. The table held an assortment of electronic recording and processing equipment, along with a music stand holding his copy of the score. At key dramatic moments in the 8-movement piece, Hamlin layered electronically-enhanced instrumental passages into the mix, recorded just a few bars before and played back right away to add another instrumental texture to the experience. The effect was evocative and surprisingly subtle, giving the pieces a cinematic depth: think of Iceland’s frozen beauty in Cold Fever, or Warner Herzog’s remarkable documentary from last year, Encounters At The End Of The World. In Hamlin’s work, the ensemble itself replaces the birds and whales of the earlier Hovhaness and Rautavaara pieces to represent the ever-changing infused ‘natural’ element.
Hamlin’s Visions of Ice is a celebration of the oncoming season’s austerity. Rather than taking the easy route and merely reflecting its most obvious surface characteristics of darkness and cold, Hamlin’s musical landscape works both on the panoramic and more detailed scale to affirm that wintertime is anything but lifeless. You just have to know how to appreciate its subtleties.
Michael Arnowitt’s solo piano tour-de-force was the highlight of the second half, with compelling and powerful performances (from memory – no easy accomplishment) of two formidable Messian works, and Cha Na Kin’s I Think That I Shall Never See…., inspired by the Joyce Carol Oates poem. Over the years I’ve heard Michael play jazz, Mozart, and a lot of nice but fairly standard concert fare. He always plays well, expressively, and brings a lot of himself to the music. But I’ve never heard him play with the intensity and purpose with which his Messiaen was infused last night. His performance was driven, his interpretation of Messiaen in turns feverish and inspired, and ponderous and introspective. In other words: just as it should be for the emotional complexity and tension of these pieces.
Kissed by the Wild is a program inspired by the natural world, but also seems to emerge from it organically as surely as the first flakes of winter are followed by coiled verdant tendrils growing and waiting to break through the crusted snow of early spring.
The VCME is Steven Klimowski, clarinets; Berta Frank, flutes; Bonnie Thurber Klimowski, cello; Paula Ennis, piano; with special guest pianist Michael Arnowitt for this performance. The second of the two “Kissed by the Wild” performances is happening tonight at the Flynn Space, 8pm.