Dallas — The title for Sunday’s season-opening Voices of Change concert at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium was Set That on Fire!
It recalled Steal This Book, the title of Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 counterculture screed. But American composer Missy Mazzoli’s work Set That on Fire has much more modest aim. She borrowed the phrase from a graffiti artist and the piece strives to “build a seemingly sturdy musical structure that quickly explodes, disintegrates, and blazes into something unexpected.”
Her piece was short; about nine minutes. It even felt shorter because the program listed four movements that were played uninterrupted. Many in the audience thought that when it ended it was only the first movement. We were surprised when the players stood up. Another asset, of continuous movement and energy, also led to our surprise.
The small ensemble that delivered such an excellent and thoughtful performance was made up of Artistic Director and violinist Maria Schleuning, flutist Helen Blackburn, trumpeter John Holt, clarinetist Paul Garner, Bass clarinetist Chris Runk and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya.
The program opened with American composer Charles Wuorinen’s 2008 Trio for flute, bass clarinet, and piano, with bass clarinetist Runk, flutist Ebonee Thomas and pianist Gabriel Sanchez. Wuorinen remains one of the last serial modernist composers, from the Tower of Babbitt era, held over from the rascally 20th century. This style of music set the audiences voting against it with their feet for decades. In the context of this concert, where in the past it would have been cutting edge, it sounded quaint.
What didn’t sound quaint was Armenian composer Arno Babajanian’s 1952 Trio in F-sharp Minor for violin, cello, and piano. It is hard to imagine two so completely different works that are called a trio. Babajanian’s is a gorgeous work with hints of juxtaposed composers as different as Rachmaninoff to Fauré and Khachaturian to Bartók. The second movement, especially, was entrancingly lovely. Schleuning and Georgievskaya were joined by cellist Kari Kettering to deliver a marvelous performance of a work you want to hear again.
The concert also included Yuko Uebayashi's fascinating Suite for flute and cello. Once the ears adjusted to the limited sonic landscape, the listener soon forgot the limited resources that the composer used.
VOC is a national treasure. Now in its 33rd season, it brings the music of the 20th and 21st centuries to the forefront and frequently presents the music of living composers, some of whom are on hand to talk about the music audiences are about to hear. Shame on North Texas audiences that these cutting-edge concerts are so poorly attended and shame on SMU that we see so few students in the audience.
Let me present a question. Suppose you are going to New York and have a chance to see Hello, Dolly! or a new musical that you know little about. Which would you choose? Why is it that, in almost all performing arts organizations, other than serious music, do audiences not want to hear what is current? Admittedly, it would help if VOC printed a list of upcoming events in the program, but they deserve a better turnout and audiences deserve to hear what this remarkable ensemble performs.