Dallas — One of the more intriguing and challenging tasks of a music critic (or, for that matter, any connoisseur of fine music) is the evaluation of new music. Will I be bashing a work that’s praised for centuries to come, or praising a piece that is forgotten in just a few years? (Even the most prominent critics in the history books have done both at some point.) And even the casual concert-goer has to wonder if he or she is hearing a work that will endure or a work that will be forgotten.
On Oct. 24, the Soundings new music series at the Nasher Sculpture Center offered, as it often does, yet another musical adventure along those lines, with two lengthy and substantial chamber works in a meaty concert of works of living composers. For my ears, one work, almost a quarter-century old (which is new in the slowly evolving history of classical music), clearly falls in the masterpiece category, while the other, on first hearing, sounded flawed and not destined to endure.
The first offering came from Sofia Gubaidulina, a Russian-born composer of Tatar descent who has lived in Germany since the early 1980s. Galgenlieder à 3 (Gallows Songs for 3) from 1995 sets short, whimsically dark poems by early 20th-century German poet Christian Morgenstern, and is score for mezzo-soprano, percussion, and double bass. This 50-minute work in 15 movements had all the marks, even on first hearing for this listener, of a masterpiece.
Galgenlieder offers constant engagement with the audience via a grand array of sonic effects from all three musicians, and copious opportunity for dramatic interaction (even without sets or costumes). The cycle also features a sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, always superb interplay of words and music. An “aesthetic weasel” (the percussionist) crawls about the stage, the bass viol becomes a percussion instrument (and then an object of competition and contention), the bass viol and percussion instruments manage to evoke ancient chant—along with dozens of other imaginative dramatic situations.
The shadows of J.S. Bach (in the lean but richly imagined counterpoint) and Arnold Schoenberg, (in the intense, sometimes disjunct quality of the vocal lines), were most evident. Soprano Melanie Henley Heyn, percussionist Sam Seyong Um, and bassist Lizzie Burns provided excellent, constantly involved and committed performances, making the most of both the visual and musical possibilities to create a little universe of possibilities on the small stage at the Nasher.
After the beautiful nuance of the Gubaidulina, the noisy opening percussion riff of Princeton faculty member Steven Mackey’s wordless opera Orpheus Unsung provided a shocking jolt. Though equally ambitious in scope and innovative in approach as Galgenlieder, Orpheus Unsung failed to make nearly as strong an impression of ultimate durability.
The legend of Orpheus, a symbol of the power of music to lull even the gods into acquiescence, has long fascinated composers. Mackey attempts to marry that legend to the sound of hard rock, presenting an unbroken hour-long musical representation (with some wordless video) of the story of Orpheus’ love for Eurydice, his descent into and ascent from Hell, and his ultimate demise at the hands of a mob of angry women. Mackey himself performed on two electric guitars and John Treuting on drums and an array of percussion.
There was, doubtless, some subtlety in Mackey’s score-less interpretation, and even a few lyrical moments. But what fine points there were for the most part drowned in the very toned-down but still very loud performance. Rock is a genre created for and best consumed in five-minute segments; its emotional effect depends on hitting hard on the central nervous system, with little involvement of counterpoint, harmonic motion, or melodic expansion. This worked well in the massive communal experience of arena concerts during the golden age of hard rock (ask any aging hipster); the limitations of the style do not, however, transfer well into the recital hall. This audience member, other than noticing Mackey’s frequent need to hitch up his rapidly sagging jeans, was left wondering if something interesting might eventually happen. Barring a few isolated moments in the video and some ear-catching electronic manipulation of sound, nothing ever did.