Dallas — Soundings concerts, which specialize in the music of our time and are held in the acoustically challenged lower floor auditorium of the Nasher Sculpture Center, are always thought provoking, sometimes thrilling and other times bewildering. The one on Feb. 19 was some of all of the above.
Flutist Marina Piccinini and pianist Andreas Haefliger put together an eclectic program of music from the very-past, namely 1886, right up to not-so-past 2012, taking us from lush neoromantic harmonies through the thicket of serialism and ending up with hypnotic minimalism.
There was something for everyone to love or dislike. But when the concert was over, programming aside, one thing was clear: both of these musicians are superb. Both have the technical prowess to play even the most complex works on the program with precision, clarity and consummate musicianship. While the astringency of some of the music may have been off-putting, these two musicians made the best possible case for every piece they played.
The most remarkable aspect of Piccinini’s playing is that she produces an amazingly clear sound that remains consistent at all dynamic levels. Many a decrescendo ended with a sound that was barely audible but no different than her loudest notes in pitch, placement or purity.
In casting about for a metaphor, nothing really seems to capture her sound. “Icy” was a possibility but there was nothing cold about her performance. “Electronically produced” describes the fact that there was amazing consistency in her tone and never an audible trace of the air she uses to make the sound. Further, technically, she is flawless. Her fluttertounge is so fast that at first it sounded like some new, as yet unheard, effect. Anther modernist effect, making two notes sound at once, was effortlessly produced.
However, the program was strange. The oddest work was a trip through the Franck Violin Sonata in an arrangement for flute and piano. For me, it didn’t work at all because of the uniformity of the flute sound, perhaps exacerbated by Piccinini’s most noticeable trait. The violin has the advantage of the bow, which can dig in with a growl or create a transparent glassy sound. Another violin effect that was missing was playing the same note on different strings.
Oddly enough, one of the two other sonatas on the program was another one that flutists and violinists share: Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata, which dates from 1943. It was originally for flute, but the composer made the arrangement for violin at the request of violinist David Oistrakh. While this works better for violin than the Franck works for flute, it is best in its original instrumentation.
The writing is so “flutey” that the violin is at a loss to duplicate it. A good example is right at the opening. The main theme only gets to the second beat of the second measure when there is a series of four 16th notes on the same pitch: the flutes tongued effect works better than any bowing possibility on the violin. (Many do not share this opinion, by the way).
The final work, another sonata (called “sonatine”) was an early work by Pierre Boulez (1946)—his first actually. It is admirable, but not very accessible, to say the least. 1946 saw the flowering of the serialization (12 tone) movement started by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920’s and taken up with a vengeance by the so-called Second Viennese School (Anton Webern, Alban Berg, et al). While Schoenberg was still using the controversial composition method in his unfinished opera, Moses und Aron, he retreated back to a reasonable semblance of tonality near the end of his life.
Not so with his disciples. And this brings us to Boulez, a composer, conductor, pianist and educator extraordinaire. He was a musical colossus that strode across the 20th century (b. 1925) and into the 21st, influential until—and no doubt after—his death in January 2016.
In this sonatine, Boulez takes serialization to extreme lengths. He serializes everything: the pitches, the dynamics, the rhythms and even the entrances. The result is certainly intense and even interesting here and there. Overall, seeing it diagramed would be impressive, but it is difficult to follow aurally and audibly disjointed.
The most astringent selection was Elliot Carter’s Scrivo in vento ("written in the wind"), for unaccompanied flute. This work dates from 1991, when he was only in his 80s (he lived, and composed, until he was 104). It also lives up to his reputation of putting intellectualism over musicality. This piece sounds like it has Tourette’s syndrome, unable to stop sudden fits of screaming amid the most placid music.
Haefliger got his solo turn with Thomas Adès’ Darknesse Visible, a work that dates from 1992 when the composer was in his early 20s. He called it an “explosion” of a song by Englishman John Dowland, who lived in the 17th century. This simple troubadour-ish song is treated in fragments and, although the composer says that no notes were added, it would take a careful examination of the score to confirm that assertion.
The most recent piece on the program was by Marc-André Dalbavie, a Boulez protégé. His 2012 Nocturne was written for the Piccinini and Haefliger duo. While his minimalist influenced style made the piece quite accessible, it sounded like it was “dashed off” for the occasion without a lot of serious thought. Still, it was an enjoyable experience in the hands of the two superb artists, and no composer can ask for more than that.