Dallas — One of the most valuable—and sadly, overlooked—musical organizations in the Metroplex is Voices of Change, a chamber sized group of some f the best musicians in the area devoted to the music of our time. Now in its 41st season, they have presented 75 world premieres (more than 25 of which were commissioned by the ensemble), performed music by more than 300 composers, and made numerous recordings, including five CDs—one was Grammy-nominated.
The concert on Sunday, Jan. 24, presented in Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium, was a good example of their efforts. The first half presented two works by 20th century French composers Jacques Ibert and Maurice Ravel. Then they moved to living composers: William Bolcom, Tilmann Dehnhard, and a new work commissioned by Pierre Jalbert, who is on the faculty at Rice University.
Except for the first of three pieces by Bolcom, none of these pieces are familiar to even the most dedicated concertgoer. Even the two works by well-known composers, Ibert and Ravel, were rarities.
Ibert’s Five Pieces for Trio were given a jolly and rollicking performance by oboist Willa Henigman, clarinetist Paul Garner and bassoonist Wilfred Roberts. All five were very short but contrasting. Ibert did not believe in limiting himself to any “school” of composition and his works run from perky and fun to lush romanticism and impressionism. Some are what his biographer, Alexandra Laederich, called “almost frivolous.”
Ravel’s stark and bare Sonata in A Major for Violin and Cello was a surprise for those familiar with his more popular works, such as the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, his famous study in orchestration Bolero and Gaspard de la Nuit, which is one of the most difficult works ever written for the piano. Ravel said that it was “stripped to the bone” and that “harmonic charm is renounced.” That about sums it up. He uses major and minor interchangeably and the last movement, the so-called “Devil’s Interval,” is based on the triton. It is hard listening but violinist and artistic director Maria Schleuning and cellist Jolyon Pegis gave it a spirited performance, easily—well maybe not that easily—surmounting its many difficulties and making some music with its angular and dissonant style.
There was even a novelty piece, Wake Up! by Tilmann Dehnhard, a Berlin-based flutist and composer. My initial pre-concert research on this piece said that it came with the proper alarm clock. Huh? A cube alarm clock was indeed present—front and center, in fact. (Perhaps this explains its relatively high cost to purchase.)
Deborah Baron, normally a flutist but playing on the piccolo, placed it on a music stand in front of her and started the alarm. It sounded an incessant electronic beep of a triplet followed by a final note: be-be-be beep. Dehnhard’s jazzy piece weaves itself around this rhythmic ostinato, ever more virtuosic. Dehnhard encourages improvisation from the performer. Not having a score, it is hard to tell if Baron did any of that, but what she played was impressive. You rarely hear the piccolo as a solo instrument. Usually, it is the icing in an orchestral piece. However, Vivaldi wrote some piccolo concerti and the excellent contempory composer Lowell Liebermann also wrote a marvelous one. Wake Up! May have been conceived as a fun idea, but it is really good music, eclectic in language, and Baron played the hell out of it.
William Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags came out of the rag revival of the early 1970’s when the works of Scott Joplin were revived, culminating in using his music for the Paul Newman/Robert Redford caper film The Sting (1973). It seems that the University of Michigan was at the forefront of modern composers turning to rags, such as the late William Albright and William Bolcom among a long list of others. The first of this set of three, The Grateful Ghost, hit big (at least for classical music) and remains one of the more frequently played works by a living composer. It moves slowly, but prominently features the characteristic offbeat rhythms.
Pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya didn’t quite get it and turned in too literal and serious performance. It was odd to hear these pieces unragged, as it were.
The eagerly awaited premiere of a VOC commission (in conjunction with the Boston Chamber Music Society), Pierre Jalbert’s Street Antiphons, for clarinet, bass clarinet, violin and piano, occupied most of the second half of the program. Jalbert said that he wanted to contrast secular and sacred music, but that was a little hard to follow. He brought in the secular with syncopated dance rhythm and the sacred, in the last movement, by using a Gregorian chant.
Antiphons is written for an unusual ensemble and it was ably performed by clarinetist Paul Garner and cellist Jeff Hood, who joined Schleuning and Georgievskaya. Bass clarinetist Chris Runk, who mostly sat around, only had a small part in the middle movement.
Garner’s clarinet was the most prominent voice in most of the piece, frequently sailing a lyric passage over rhythmic mutterings in the other four instruments. This is a complex work, but a combination of an excellent performance and clear writing made it easy to follow.
By any measure, this piece was quite successful and the small audience loved it.
VOC deserves a packed house. If you want to hear what is going on in classical music today, and how we got there, these concerts are not to be missed. And it must be added that there were few to no SMU students present. The Meadows School of the Arts music department is filled with outstanding students—where were they?