Dallas — The best art is often found in transforming the familiar into the new and challenging. Tambourine & Rhythms, the opening concert of Voices of Change’s 45th season, performed on Oct. 6 at Caruth Auditorium at Southern Methodist University, achieved that lofty goal. The program mixed brief works by young composers and a trio by Andrew Rudin with John Corigliano’s complex and robust song cycle of settings of poems by Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.
The student works were winners of the ensemble’s Young Composer’s Competition for 2019. The first, entitled Bar Fight of the Marionettes was by Andrew John Kosinski, a student at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, was a virtuosic solo piano work with frantic runs at the low end of the scale competing with an insistent and turbid melody in the upper register. The two opposing elements balance around a central middle-ranged voice, which breaks out in a jazz inspired middle section that briefly holds the two other sections at bay. The entire piece covers the whole range of the piano and was played by soloist Liudmila Georgevskaya with vim and enthusiastic energy.
The second work by a competition winner, Spring Gales and Nightingales by University of Texas at Dallas pre-med student Aaron Samadzada, also featured Ms. Georgevskaya accompanied by clarinetist Stephen Ahearn. The short piece, in essence a tone painting of a bird struggling in valiant flight against a violent storm, has a similar intensity to the Marionettes and similar pacing in its scherzo midsection after an ominous build up of the storm in the pianos lowest register. After the storm, represented by the piano, runs its course, the clarinet maintains its energy in an exultant peal of high-pitched tweets matched by the piano. Some of the composition of the storm felt overwrought but the entire work was moving and evocative.
Rudin’s Circadia was an effective juxtaposition by an obviously more seasoned composer and is more finished in its length and complexity as well as in the voicing for piano (Ms. Georievskaya), violin (VOC Artistic Director Maria Schleuning) and cello (Jolyon Pegis). The piece is in four sections, “Morning,” “Afternoon,” “Evening/Reverie” and “Re-awakening” and the early parts of piece bore some similarity to the two that had preceded it. Rudin’s Morning begins in a measured but frenetic manner in the piano, with the strings joining at first in cohesion and then with more independency of line as if following different threads of thought. The movement is punctuated by rapid changes in texture from pizzicato and staccato to long arco notes in both strings. In “Afternoon” the piece settles into a more legato sound as the piano is finally allowed a more melodic and lyrical function. “Evening/Reverie” features a gradual slowing down of the meter into a haunting section of fragments that hearken back to the beginning, perhaps representing the fleeting and disjointed thoughts of early sleep. Finally, in “Re-Awakening,” the composition restarts its cycle, accessing the energy and frantic pulse of the opening but with more cohesion and line in the piano as if the afternoon and evening of thought has settled some of the conturbation. The entire piece was stirring and expressively played, but I felt the early parts had too much separation of the voices, whether due to the composition or the stylistic interpretation was unclear.
The featured piece of the concert was Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, composed in 2000 and set for soprano, piano, percussion and a chamber ensemble of strings, clarinet and flute and conducted by Paul Phillips. Soprano Alissa Roca was incandescent from her first appearance to the sumptuous and emotional ending. Throughout, she demonstrated not only superb vocal artistry but also a dramatic flair that gave the cycle shape and consistency. The musical ensemble was responsive and intuitive so that the flow of the cycle felt like a coherent anthology rather than a collection of songs.
It is a challenge to take lyrics that are so intrinsically associated with a tune and recast them. Corigliano employed several means in his composition to separate the texts/poems from their associated recordings, not the least of which was choosing a mix of songs, some iconic (“Mr Tambourine Man,” “Blowing in the Wind” and “Forever Young”) and some less familiar (“Clothes Line” or “Masters of War,” for example). He also deliberately recast the rhythms so that the earworm melodies did not have a chance to form. Finally, Phillips never let the resonance of the previous song completely resolve so that each work was framed in the light of its predecessor rather than in the shadow of its more familiar recorded form. The overall effect was expert, with the exception of the title song, where the rhythms could not be fully changed and which suffered from an imbalance of percussion overpowering Roca’s voice. This was the only instance where the consonance of the ensemble was not perfectly matched.
The work began with “Tambourine” followed by a setting of the curious poem “Clothes Line” set as a combination folk song/recitative. The pacing of this piece was a little slow and lost some of the inherent jocularity of Dylan’s patois, but Ms. Roca’s storytelling skills were exquisitely displayed. Her performance of “Blowin’ In the Wind” carried this most iconic lyric into a new world of discovery, ranging from pensive through grave to a sense of urgent self-awareness as each passage of the wind brought new knowledge. In the final haunting portion, the human voice is disembodied and transformed into a part of the musical consort depicting the wind of change and knowledge.
“Masters of War” and “All Along the Watchtower,” two of Dylan’s most strident protest songs, were treated to hyper-dramatic and affecting interpretations by Ms. Roca, the first an unrelenting song of bitterness which she spat our with frightening vehemence, the second a mix of desperation then manic calmness finally setting into a placid but unresolved wariness. “Chimes of Freedom,” Dylan’s paean to those who take a stand in protest was subdued and inevitable with a undercurrent of tolling bells. The chimes are never boisterous and celebratory but are unsettled and perturbing, only reaching a crescendo and coming forward at the very end. Finally, in a brilliant piece of audacity, Corigliano ended his cycle with a setting of “Forever Young” that has the voice singing unaccompanied except for the repeated verse of “May you stay forever young…” The whole feel of the last piece was almost like an echo of innocence, building into a gorgeous high spot on the word “song” in the final stanza (“May your song always be sung.”). It allowed the cycle as a whole to be optimistic and nostalgic despite the turbulence of its middle pieces.