<span>Composer Kaija Saariaho</span>
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Review: Anniversary Serenade and Sonata | Voices of Change | Caruth Auditorium

Bright and Shining Ruby

The new music champions of Voices of Change prove they still have something important to say with the 40th anniversary concert.

published Saturday, May 9, 2015

Photo: Kaija Saariaho
Composer Kaija Saariaho

Dallas — The traditional gift for a 40th anniversary is a ruby. The concert celebrating the 40th anniversary of Voices of Change, a group dedicated to performing the music of our time, presented us some gems instead. The May 3 concert, in Southern Methodist University’s Caruth auditorium, was full of musical rubies and diamonds that covered the full range of its portfolio: music of the 20th and 21st centuries. We went from Bartók’s Sonata (1926) to Thomas Schwan’s vacant Piano (2014).

The real treat of the afternoon, however, was to be found in the pre-concert talk given by the always-interesting Laurie Shulman. Her main guest was an effervescent Jo Boatright, the co-founder of the organization. She was visiting to celebrate the anniversary. Boatright is a ball of buzzing energy and, with the skill of a born raconteur, she chatted with Schulman about the early years of the organization.

The eclectic program of the concert itself was a good summation of the portfolio of VOC. All of the selections were from the requisite 20th or 21st century and covered a wide range of musical styles.

For the majority of composers, this time period was one of great, sometimes wild, experimentation, shredding the fabric of music itself. Finding new sounds was the overriding goal. On the other side, many composers chose to stay within the tonal system, more or less. While they were a minority, they were an important one, as it turns out. They kept their experimentation within the tonal system, letting it grow and absorb what the experimenters were doing.

Photo: Candice White
Maria Schleuning

The recent return to tonality, refreshed by the crucible of the 20th century, is in ascendancy. For instance, all eight new operas recently workshopped by the Frontiers program at the Fort Worth Opera were tonal. Such was not the case last year.

The season finale VOC program opened with a surprise: some delightful Viennese style waltzes by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich. Just listening, you would have never guessed the composer. They were drawn from some of his film scores and arranged by Levon Atovmyan for flute, clarinet and piano. Helen Blackburn (flute), Paul Garner (clarinet) and Liudmila Georgievskaya (pianist) obviously enjoyed the 1-2-3 excursion. Shostakovich followed the traditions of the waltz, such as you hear in Johan Strauss, Jr.’s work, complete with all the different sections and repeats. Dancers would have been the cherry on top.

On the closing end of the program, there was another fun and mischievous piece of music by that master of musical humor, P. D. Q. Bach.

Not really.

The selection was by the man who is P. D. Q. Bach’s secret identity: Peter Schickele. We heard his jolly Serenade for Three. The current Artistic Director and violinist, Maria Schleuning, joined Garner and Georgievskaya to bring it to life. If we thought the players had fun with the opening pieces, we had no idea how much amusement there would be at the end of the concert.

We should have suspected, given the name of the composer, but this set of three pieces left no musical stone unthrown. There was a purposeful potpourri of influences on display to amuse and delight. Yet, nothing was copied or parodied. The references were all very subtle and sly. 

Some Poulenc gave way to Copland while Stravinsky hobnobbed with boogie-woogie great Albert Ammons. Schleuning even sent up a cloud of rosin dust with some ol’ fashioned country fiddlin’. Yee haw.

As to as the most serious piece on the program, it was serious indeed. Pianist Carol Leone, who is the chair of the keyboard department at SMU, gave a definitive performance of Bartók’s Sonata, Sz.80.

This is a very difficult work to play and hear: 15 very intense minutes, thickly scored and bristling with dissonance. The composer writes percussive music that takes full advantage of all of the instrument's alibies. (He even asks for more than the modern piano offers. He writes it for a Bösendorfer with some additional keys in the bass.) 

Bartók’s craftsmanship is astounding. It is fascinating to hear how he crammed such experimental harmonies, laced with folklike tunes, into standard forms. Upon close examination, this is basically a tonal work, but it certainly pushes the boundaries with his incorporation of dissonance. There is so much gong on all of the time, with such a thick texture, that it is not easy to listen and follow everything. However, in this reading, the piece was easier to follow that in any hearing in memory.

Leone’s performance was revelatory because she picked through the score and decided what the audience should hear at every given point and then made everything else subservient. It sounded like a different piece, clarified, and all of Bartók’s skillful application of the craft of composition was on full display. Further, this piece is usually a bang-a-thon, but not in Leone’s hands. But not to fear: when power was needed, she rose up off the bench and came down on the keyboard with full force.

On the other side of the sonic world, Thomas Schwan’s Piano Trio moved on the scale of the tectonic plates. Violinist Shu Lee and cellist Maria-Thais Oliver joined the composer, who was at the piano. For 15 long minutes, an occasional note on the piano punctuated long held notes in the strings. It would be of interest to see the score so that you could tell how he notated these effects. (Surely, it is not mostly empty pages of held whole notes.) Like it or not, it achieves the purpose it set for itself in its sedative and meditative alpha wave-inducing effects. A hugely loud tone cluster in the bass of the piano was a jolt, but it announced a turning point in the music.

The modernist movement was represented by Kaija Saariaho’s Serenatas. Georgievskaya was at the piano, cellist Marie-Thais Oliver and percussionist Jon Lee gave the piece a fine performance. Lee was very busy running to and fro with an array of percussion instruments that he hit, plucked, bowed and malleted. However, in spite of all that equipment, this is not a percussion-heavy piece. Lee’s efforts punctuated, underlined and enhanced the music, adding atmosphere.

The work is full of what is called “alternative techniques” and it created musical pictures more than it created music. There were lots of slides on the string instruments and piano strings plucked (with the player inside the piano). Bowing effects, such as using it over the bridge (scratchy) and over the fingerboard (spooky) alternated with harmonics, both natural and artificial. None of these effects were really new, but Saariaho used them effectively.

It was all very interesting but went on too long.

VOC is one of the great treasures, not only in North Texas, but internationally. The list of composers who got their start with VOC is impressive as is the number of premieres and commissions.  They deserve, and need, more support.

All locals who are interested in music should attend.  Do not fear a concert of undecipherable noise. First of all, that never really happened (well…maybe a few times), but concerts like this one have something to please everyone. New music must be encouraged. It is the legacy we will leave to the next generation.

» Read our feature story on VOC's history Thanks For Reading

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Bright and Shining Ruby
The new music champions of Voices of Change prove they still have something important to say with the 40th anniversary concert.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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