Dallas — On Tuesday evening, the sparse audience that gathered at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium was treated to a performance of a broad range of newer music for cello. Andrés Diaz (Professor of Cello at SMU) presented a formidable recital as part of the second Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival. The program of pieces was a guarded secret until the evening of the performance. While it was a pleasant surprise to be greeted with composers Gian Carlo Menotti, Xi Wang and Tan Dun, it is of questionable wisdom to hide this important information from those deciding whether or not to attend.
Gian Carlo Menotti, who is probably familiar to most as an important composer of opera, is an acquired taste. Although the listener is given what at first appears a traditional, functional harmony, it betrays itself at every turn with an unusual resolution of line or an unexpected, new direction. His is a rather fluid musical language which persistently approaches the door of neo-classicism, rings the bell, and then runs away giggling. From one perspective his music can be described as joyous and lighthearted, but from another it can be seen as frivolous or even melodramatic. All of this was on display in the Suite for Two Cellos and Piano (1973), which opened the program.
Cellist Brian Thornton (the festival’s organizer) and pianist Elena Zyl joined Diaz to give an attractive reading of the work. Only occasionally did Menotti’s small-scale intricacies become muddled in the acoustic ring of the hall. The difficult writing of the piece found the cellos often competing at the same range as the piano part. Zyl was expertly sensitive and responsive to keep the piano from overpowering the relatively dark and covered timbre of cello sounds in these passages. The final movement was the most appealing in its off-kilter drive, paired with more cohesive melodic content. Here the ensemble maintained a disconnected yet tasteful poise which well suited the tongue-in-cheek nature of music.
Xi Wang’s Rhapsody for solo cello gave Diaz the opportunity to demonstrate a wide array of color and effect. This intense work seems to cry out in emotive response to some sorrow or difficulty. The simple and direct writing concisely articulates the emotions through the hands of Diaz as he refused any temptation to simply show off. The work opens with an impassioned arpeggiation of mostly minor sixth intervals along with a tritone (the most dissonant of intervals in western harmonic theory) which leaves no question as to the terse nature of the piece. This improvisatory segment eventually gives way to more intentional patterns collapsing the same interval collection to create a symmetrical five note theme. The next perceivable section introduces a brief segment of polyphony along with the introduction of the major ninth (another clashing and disruptive interval).
As the work winds along, all of this musical material is woven into several different configurations, even incorporating some more consonant harmonies. But the final climactic moments of the work feature a loud string of major ninths allowing no resolution of the music’s anguish. While it is difficult to fault a well-crafted piece such as this, a bit more variety in terms of thematic and intervallic development would have deepened the experience and lessened its academic feel.
Certainly, the highlight of the evening was Tan Dun’s Elegy: Snow in June (1991) for cello and percussion. This beautifully atmospheric work pits the soft flexibility of the cello against a huge assortment of percussive sounds ranging from bells to tearing paper. Along with Diaz, percussionists Jon Lee, Drew Lang, Lane Harder and Daniel Medina reenacted in this sort of tone poem the story of a young woman unfairly executed for accusations of which she was innocent. In a supernatural revolt against the action, her blood is not accepted by the ground but ascends skyward from where a heavy snow begins to fall. The demanding cello part is at times dramatically lamenting the plight of innocence in the face of the stark percussion but at other times joins in unison the intense noise at key climactic points in the musical structure: A very moving and convincing performance overall.
It is here especially that program notes or at least a few words from the stage would have been of significant benefit to those not familiar with the music. In the current environment of North Texas, no opportunity should missed to welcome the uninitiated to the wonderful, emotional, personal, accessible and relevant works of recently composed music. Some information about the music would have helped this cause enormously.
While the music itself was worth attending the recital, the connection to Aronson was not made obvious. One has only to mention the name of Lev Aronson in a group of North Texas musicians to spark at least a couple interesting stories about this fascinating man who was a great teacher and cellist. It was a bit disappointing to hear none of these stories or hardly even a mention of him on the second night at a festival devoted to his legacy (there was an introduction at Monday’s concert, though). The festival website indicates that young cello students are given at the festival the opportunity to study “in the tradition of Lev Aronson.” One has to wonder why the decision was made not to mention the mission of the festival or its namesake at each of the concerts.
If this performance is any indication, this is a musical event worthy of Dallas’ attention.
» Our review of the first concert, featuring Brian Thornton, Emanuel Borok and Spencer Myer. Look for reviews of other performances in the festival on TheaterJones
» Here is the remaining schedule for the second Lev Aronson Legacy Music Festival. The June 14 recital is in Caruth Auditorium; others are in O'Donnell Hall. Both venues are in the Owens Fine Art Center at SMU. The performance schedule is:
- 7 p.m. Thursday, June 12: Recital with Jesus Castro-Balbi
- 7 p.m. Friday, June 13: Norman Fischer on works of Beethoven for cello and piano
- 7 p.m. Saturday, June 14: Recital by Ralph Kirshbaum