On March 20, the internationally renowned Dallas-based contemporary music group, Voices of Change, certainly lived up to its name. You could hear some of the change in classical music’s tonal-related compositional style over the last 90 years. The atonal and experimental tracks, which ran parallel certainly got most of the attention at the time and almost became orthodoxy. But this concert reminded us that other composers continued to bring new elements to tonal music, keeping it alive, waiting for the pendulum to swing back into its favor over the last decade or so. The VOC musical journey started in 1924 and ended with a new work, most appropriately titled The Reason for the Journey.
VOC frequently presents programs featuring works by many different composers, creating interesting juxtapositions of style and voice. They also feature works for a variety of performers. This was the case on Sunday, with a program that covered a wide historical swath from the 1920s right up to a recently composed premiere.
The oldest piece on the program was only written for two performers: a flute and clarinet. This was one of a series of compositions, called chôros, written by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. The series is for a wide array of instrumentation from a large orchestra and chorus to a single guitar. Chôros No. 2, on this program, dates from 1924 and is for flute and clarinet. The name of the series refers to the music played by street musicians. Villa-Lobos expanded the term to include his interest in Brazilian folk music. Clarinetist Paul Garner and flutist Helen Blackburn caught the mood of Villa-Lobos’ quirky music in a delightful performance.
From the 1930s, we heard the Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano written by Aram Khachaturian when he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. This may have been an early work, but the composer’s voice was already formed. Like Villa-Lobos, Khachaturian incorporates folk elements in his music; dressed up with cross-rhythms and harmonic complexity. Garner, pianist Gabriel Sanchez, and violinist (and VOC Artistic Director) Maria Schleuning gave an excellent performance of a work that takes considerable skill to pull off.
Moving on to 1950, we heard a work for string quartet: Allegro, Intermezzo, and Scherzo by the recently deceased composer and cellist, Alan Shulman. He was the father of the well-known musicologist, author, program annotator and informative pre-concert lecturer, Laurie Shulman, who appeared later on the program. His influences are more universal than Villa-Lobos or Khachaturian, as befits an American musician active in New York City. He incorporated jazz harmonies and Jewish folk influences with the best aspects of the music that surrounded him as a cellist. Schleuning was joined by violinist Shu Lee, violist Barbara Sudweeks and cellist Kari Kettering to play Shulman’s excellently crafted music. They delivered a very musical reading, bringing out Shulman’s unique stylistic traits. It is a difficult work, and probably could have used another rehearsal or two, but the performance amply demonstrated the high quality of Shulman’s music. We need to hear more of his work.
Next came a piece from the 1980s. We are used to works for piano or violin written by pianists or violinists, but there are few composers who also play the trumpet. But such is the case with Anthony Plog. In addition to a solo career, he held Principal or Assistant Principal trumpet chairs in American orchestras as well as ones in Europe after moving there in 1990. In 2001, he retired from a performing career to concentrate on composition. Early on in his career, he wrote exclusively for brass. Later, his compositional focus broadened out to include everything from symphonic works to full-scale operas. This program introduced us to a whimsical piece, Animal Ditties for Trumpet, Piano, and Narrator, dating from 1983.
In the 1980s, Plog wrote a series of eight such works, each a series of short sketches, based on the poetry of the poet and humorist Ogden Nash. They are all for narrator, but they use a variety of small instrumental ensembles. The one of the program, No. 2 in the series, pairs the narrator with a trumpet and piano. Laurie Shulman made a clever narrator, speaking with impeccable diction and a mock serioso tone that brought Nash’s doggerel to life. To the delight of the audience, she even donned a pig nose for the poem about that animal. Trumpeter John Holt and pianist Ekaterina Chernaya-Oh offered Plog’s equally witty musical interjections.
This brings us to the present day with Lane Harder, Visiting Professor of Music Theory and Composition at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. Earlier, we heard from a composer who is a trumpeter. Even rarer, Harder is a composer who is percussionist, as his new piece, La Razón des Viaje (The Reason for the Journey) amply displayed. The Dallas City Performance Hall stage overflowed with a great array of percussion instruments. Harder later said that it took three large trucks to transport such a large battery.
The work is for soprano, with percussion, including a piano. The text, sung in Spanish, comes from the symbolist poetry of the Mexican poet, diplomat and physician, Enrique González Martinez. A translation was provided with the program but was difficult to read in the darkened auditorium (at least where I was sitting) and too complex to remember. Soprano Sydney Frodsham delivered the angular singing lines and dense poetry with a flexible voice. Singing mostly without vibrato, her sound ranged from rich to shrill. It is an odd voice, no doubt, but it will be interesting to hear what she can do in a more traditional work.
Percussionist Brandon Carson, Drew Lang, Zach Sherburn and Edwin Streck needed their track shoes to keep up with Harder’s demands, frequently running from instrument to instrument, with handfuls of mallets, sometimes only to play one note and then race to the next one. As in most percussion ensemble performances, watching the carefully worked out choreography is one of the most entertaining aspects. The proliferation of pitched percussion (marimbas, bells, vibraphones, et al) allowed Harder to display his eclectic, always intriguing, take on modernist tonality. The various unpitched percussion kept up a constantly interesting commentary.
Sometimes only a few instruments were speaking, sometimes iced with a high-pitched wind chime (mark tree). At one incredibly soft moment, Frodsham simply poured water from a pitcher into an old fashioned basin. On the other hand, one chaotic crescendo amply illustrated the famous quote by Stephenie Mayer: “All hell broke loose.” The four percussionists batted at everything within reach, while two of them, in an effect as much visual as audible in the din, tossed a collection of empty tin cans to the floor as they ran past them on their way to something else to hit.
Not much is as much fun as a performance by a percussion ensemble.
It would take another hearing or two, and a score, to discern how well Harder’s piece illustrated, or commented on, the poetry. But on first hearing, Harder’s well-crafted piece delivered a highly satisfactory musical, auditory and visual experience. It may not have offered the promised “reason for the journey,” but it was a terrific destination.