Dallas — Voices of Change, an ensemble dedicated to the music of our time, presented a fascinating program of musical reconsiderations on Sunday, Jan. 8, at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
One of the selections, a piano four-hands arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, was revelatory when stripped down to its bare bones. We heard a new take on Witold Lutoslawski's Bucolics for Piano in his later arrangement condensing the music to only two voices: violin and cello.
Another, Stop Speaking (2011) by Andy Akiho, was remarkable for its unusual instrumentation: a snare drum and pre-recorded voice. There was a rarity by Ravel. And then there was something completely new, Motion Studies by Mark Buller, the last movement of which was a winner in the Rapido! composition contest.
Let’s start with Buller’s Motion Studies. It received an admirable performance by clarinetist Paul Garner, violinist (and VOC artistic director) Maria Schleuning and pianist Gabriel Sanchez. Buller writes in a modernist take on traditional harmony with lots of virtuoso passages, use of extremes of the instrument’s range and negative space created by the strategic use of silences. The first movement, “Treatise on Friction,” introduced the technical abilities of the instruments. The next, “Jeux” (games) was suitably playful and slighted canted. The last, the prizewinner, “Regressive Variations,” is a contrarian take on the traditional theme and variations in that the theme assembles as the piece progresses.
Akiho’s “Stop Speaking” was the most memorable piece on the program because of its novelty. Percussionist Drew Lang played a complex part on the snare drum that utilized all of its special effects and ran a litany of rudiments. The recorded voice harkened back to the earlier era of the avant garde with its rapid-fire vocalizations, in sync with the drumming, of words in no particular order and random consonants and vowels. It would have been more fun if the balance was better, but the snare drum covered the voice most of the time.
The Lutoslawski was played by violist Barbara Sudweeks and cellist Jeff Hood. The piece was not harmed by the transition to string instruments but the percussiveness of the piano was missed.
Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel, a rarely heard cycle of three songs, was brilliantly performed by pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya, flutist Kara Kirkendoll Welch, cellist and mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy. The lyrics come from Chansons madécasses, a collection of poems by Évariste de Parny. "Nahandove" is an exotic meditation on love. "Aoua" is a call to arms to fight the “white people”, and "Il est doux" speaks of the pleasures of relaxing after a hard day of work.
It is a difficult work to pull off, even with such outstanding musicians on hand. Its minimal instrumentation deprives us of the lush harmonic extravagances of Ravel’s more familiar works. However, this performance made a good case for more performances of the piece.
Stravinsky’s ballet score, Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) caused a sensation, some say a riot, at its premiere in 1913 for the Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Part of the hostile reception was the assault of its searing, highly colored and even barbaric in-your-face orchestration; a far cry from La Sylphide, a tutu-filled very traditional ballet, brimming with battements, which opened the program.
It was brilliantly performed by Liudmila Georgievskaya and Thomas Schwan. But, shorn of its stunning orchestral finery, it was hardly shocking at all, or even all that unusual and revolutionary for the time. What commentator Paul Rosenfeld wrote in 1920, "…pound[s] with the rhythm of engines, whirls and spirals like screws and fly-wheels, grinds and shrieks like laboring metal" was remarkably missing from this piano version.
Sacre on Prozac, as it were.
What this points up is the far-reaching influence of Stravinsky’s extensive study with Rimsky-Korsakov, who revolutionized the art of orchestration. His book on the subject is still, despite his self-aggrandizement in the text, a standard for composers to study and digest. You need only look to his most popular work, Scheherazade, to see the foundations of Stravinsky’s ballet. A piano four-hands arrangement of that tone poem is equally disappointing when deluded.