Dallas — Voices of Change changed voices frequently at its Feb. 16 concert, called Postcards & Impressions. The composition dates covered 100 years, from 1917 to 2017, and featured four very different composers. We heard music by Charles Ives, Claude Debussy, and two contemporary composers, John Psathas and Stacy Garrop.
VOC uses a cadre of dedicated professional musicians, most of whom appear on its programs frequently, and the group is all about playing the music of our time. My reviews of them offer a heavily weighted perspective towards the composers, their music, influence, and historical importance. Postcards brought this to mind because by featuring turn-of-the-20th-century composers and their modern-day heirs, VOC made this point most eloquently.
The concert opened with a work from 1991 by John Psathas, his Matre’s Dance for drums and piano. Matre's Dance was commissioned by Jack Body and originally premiered by David Guerin and Bruce McKinnon. The work achieved international renown for both the piece and the young composer himself when it was performed and recorded by superstar percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
Psathas was born in 1966 in New Zealand to Greek parents. He studied composition and piano at Victoria University of Wellington. His musical roots reflect the music of his era, with a combination of classical, minimalism, jazz and even some rock. In fact, as a student he played in a jazz trio to help with his college expenses. As further proof of his cultural interests, Matre’s Dance is based on a scene from Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi masterpiece Dune.
The excellent percussionist Drew Lang kept busy playing on three tom-toms, from large to small, and a set of bongos. He used wooden drumsticks throughout the 14 minutes of mostly fortissimo drumming. He was partnered with the equally excellent pianist Gabriel Sanchez, whose part was equally challenging, both rhythmically and technically. Both artists were continuously counting to accommodate the constantly changing time signatures and rhymical changes of patterns and accents. Both played throughout the duration. The effect was a bewildering assault of sonic, sensory pulses. While there were occasional lowerings of the dynamic level, they were all too rare to give us a break for resting our ears.
The concert jumped back to the early 20th century in musical history to snag Charles Ives’ 1914 Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano. Ives’ compositions baffled his contemporaries as well as the next generation of musicians (and many even now). This work is an example of why, with its mosaic of musical styles, from 19th century romanticism and bits of music of his era such as hoedowns and familiar church hymns, all combined with an advanced taste of the modernism that wouldn’t come into common use for another 50 years or so. In Memos, a collection of his random writings published posthumously, the composer himself denigrated this, his longest sonata, for the pairing. He called it a “weak sister,” among many other disparaging remarks. He must have been talking about the structure of the sonata considering that he stole most of the music from his earlier works for organ, flavored with the Sunday mornings hymns that permeate many of his other works.
Violinist (and artistic director) Maria Schleuning and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya did an excellent job in connecting Ives’ disparate stylistic ramblings, smoothing them together seamlessly. Both are superb artists and they seemed to meld in this performance. Balance was always on the mark, which is important in this work made up of so many assembled and evenly distributed fragments. By the time we arrived at the hushed ending with an unadorned reading of the revival hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour,” we were sold on Ives’ unique and unconventional style.
Most books on modern music start out with Debussy and end with the date of publication. He was represented here by his late-period Trio, a sonata for flute, viola and harp. Flutist Helen Blackburn, violist Barbara Sudweeks and harpist Emily Levin gave it an evocative rendition, bringing out Debussy’s unmistakable impressionistic voice. This was especially true of Blackburn, who brought an artist’s palette of different colors and washes to what she played. So did the others, in their own way, but the flute has a wider range of possibilities for such expressive colorings than the viola or harp. However, the ensemble is perfectly suited to Debussy’s music, with the rich sounds of the viola, the flexibility of the flute and the more ephemeral harp — as opposed to the percussiveness of the piano. You would think that Debussy would have written for this combination, considering his extensive use of the flute and harp in solo, chamber and orchestral works. But, alas, this was the only one.
VOC delivered a wonderful performance of the sonata. The balance, phrasing, tempi and intonation were excellent throughout. These attributes are very important in this particular work because of the way Debussy writes equal amounts of music for each instrument, although the spotlight frequently moves between them. In fact, bringing out that constantly moving point of attention was the highlight of this performance. Most of us were so entranced by this musical siren’s song that we regretted being released from it when it inevitably ended.
Debussy and Ives were both important for their influence on the future of music as much as for their actual music. Both wrote with such a unique musical voice that it was unadoptable, literally, by other composers. For example, many classical era composers were able to successfully write in the style established by Mozart, but would-be Debussy-ists such as the American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes were ridiculed as stylistic plagiarists. (Check out his White Peacock.)
However, with the passage of time, the influence of Debussy’s impressionistic revolution has become an important tool for contemporary composers. An excellent example of this influence closed the VOC program: Garrop’s Postcards from Wyoming for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and a full battery of percussion. Conducted by guest artist Richard Giangiulio, the performance featured Blackburn, Schleuning, Georgievskaya, and Lang, with clarinetist Andrew Sandwick and cellist Jolyon Pegis. The work was written during the composer’s 2014 residency at the Ucross Foundation’s artistic retreat in Clearmont, Wyoming (population 142 in the 2010 census).
This location was established almost immediately by Lang’s use of a rattle to give a life-like impression of the rattlesnake’s ominous warning. In the program note, the composer called the three movements “glimpses” into the vacant landscape, which is much more interesting as you take a closer look. Part of the sonic color was offered by the composer’s inclusion of instrumental doubling, such as adding a bass clarinet or alto flute. The percussion array went from a booming gong to the tiny antique cymbal that was a favorite of Debussy. In addition to an impression of impressionistic style, the work also makes effective use of minimalism as well as Ives’ use of modern quotations.
The performers superbly tied these elements together so that none were more noticeable than the others. The minimalistic patterns were traded back and forth seamlessly while the frequently long melodic passages floated above it all.
VOC took us on a revealing journey from the early revolutionaries to those who inherited and then updated the musical languages forged in the early part of the 20th century.