Dallas — Voices of Change programs are usually right at the cutting edge of what is happening in new music. Frequently, these programs are populated with premieres or second performances or at least music written within the last few years. So it was quite a surprise on Sunday when the program presented at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium featured two major works that barely snuck under the line of the 20th century. Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano dates from 1913 and Charles Ives’ first string quartet was started in 1896 and finished in 1909.
Of course, Berg and Ives are two seminal titans of contemporary music. Berg’s music is the most accessible of that by the other pupils of Arnold Schoenberg. His personal and unique take on the 12-tone system produced music of stunning beauty and power. Except for a few early works, of all of those in the so-called Second Viennese School, only his music is in the standard repertoire. His opera, Wozzeck, is always in production somewhere. A new production just recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera with none other than Deborah Voigt in a lead role.
His Four Pieces for Clarinet is a good example of why his music continues to be played. First of all, it was given a sensitive performance by clarinetist Paul Garner and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya, which always helps any piece of music reach the audience. They played it with such understanding that they were able to communicate the composer’s intent and we could see it through Berg’s eyes; hear it with his ears. In fact, the composer makes extensive notes in the score about how the music is to be played. And, although I didn’t have a score in front of me, I am willing to wager that Garner observed every written detail.
For example, there is a passage in the first movement that uses an extended technique, flutter tonging, which gives the clarinet the sound of a razz. Rather than making it a “special effect,” Garner built the piece to such passionate pitch that there was nowhere to go except for the sound to corrupt with emotion and then die away. It was a very effective moment. Garner’s control of his sound, right down to barely audible, was remarkable all the way through the piece.
The common rumor is that Schoenberg disliked these pieces; Berg was not studying with him anymore, and Schoenberg blasted them hard enough to cause a rupture in their relationship. It is difficult to see why four carefully constructed miniatures like this could be worth such fuss. In any event, from this performance, it is easy to see why they are still frequently played.
The Ives string quartet was also a piece that was written to please a teacher, with better success. In this case, it was Horatio Parker, with whom Ives was studying at Yale. For Ives, especially later Ives, this is a conservative piece although some of the rebel can be seen ready to burst out. After all, he was trying to please his conservative teacher, something that the young Alban Berg failed to do. Parker was a highly traditional composer whose music showed the influence of the German masters from Brahms to Wagner with some of Debussy creeping in. He was also an organist that may be why Ives based this quartet on hymn tunes (a source he continued to use throughout his compositional career).
Those who are familiar with the composer’s sprawling and complex fourth symphony are always taken aback when they hear this work performed, because the first movement here formed the bases of that larger work’s first movement.
Violinists Maria Schleuning and Kaori Yoshida were joined by violist Barbara Sudweeks and cellist Kari Nostbakken gave the work an admirable performance. In general, the performance lacked some dynamic contrast but they certainly brought out Ives’ lush harmonies and his early use of cross rhythms and polymeters. The composer would, later on, gleefully take these musical devices to bewildering extremes, so it was a treat to hear them here in their nascent outing.
The anachronistic aleatoric addition of a cellphone was a jarring reminder to us all. Many in the audience pulled theirs out to make sure that they would not be the next culprits. Here is something worse than the crinkly candy wrapper.
The other works on the program span the intervening years: Morton Gould’s Duo for Clarinet and Flute dates from 1972 and the other two were by composer Stacy Garrop, who was in attendance.
Silver Dagger is a delightful work for piano trio with Schleuning, Yoshida and Georgievskaya giving it an outstanding performance. It takes a page from Ives in that it is based on a well-known Appalachian folk tune, which was featured proximately.
A stronger work by Garrop ended the program. It was The Book of American Poetry, Vol. III, which dates from 2011. It is the final part of a larger cycle of songs, all by American poets. Mezzo-soprano Claire Shackleton was marvelous. She displayed a rich mezzo with lots of personality and flexibility. She brought the words to life, treating the five songs as miniature operas or dramatic scenes. She easily moved from serious to sassy as the wide range of poetry demanded, from Ezra Pound to Gwendolyn Brooks. She delivered a virtuoso performance.
Garrop wrote for an odd instrumental ensemble to accompany the songs. It worked, for the most part, but there were places where she handled the ensemble less skillfully. The ensemble consisted of flutist Jennifer McElroy, clarinetist Christopher Runk, percussionist Deborah Mashburn, pianist Thomas Schwan along with Schleuning and Nostbakken. The performance used a conductor, Richard Glangiulio, which is rare for VOC performances. However, it soon became obvious why he was needed. This is a complex work with lots going on, but the performance was also aided by the fact that it was well-written for the instruments. Garrop uses her assemblage with skill and it all worked most of the time, one shocking gong note aside.
Along the way, the wonderful flutist Helen Blackburn joined Garner for a breezy trip though Morton Gould’s Duo. He wrote it for the wedding of two friends—one a flutist and the other a clarinetist. It is very hard to write for two treble instruments like this and Gould does an admirable job, as did our performers. One of the most noticeable things about their performance was their precise intonation. There were passages, such as in the first movement, where they played in unison or in octaves. Nothing is more difficult to achieve and they were right on.
You have to laugh at the wily Gould ending a wedding piece with a lullaby.