Dallas — When a concert is named Voodoo Jazz, anything can happen. The Voices of Change concert with that mysterious moniker, at Arts Mission Oak Cliff on April 5, made for a smorgasbord of stylistic sounds that survey the 20th century. They ranged in compositional dates from 1945 to just barely past the 21st century line at 2004.
As always, VOC concerts are about the composers, their musical language and their place in the swirl of 20th century and contemporary experimentation. Performances are always excellent because the VOC ensemble is made up of some of the best musicians in the Metroplex who have mastery over such a wild swing from the avant-garde to the “neo” take on what came before. This concert was a perfect example.
The program opened with the most recent piece, Julio Racine’s Sonate Vodou Jazz, written in 2004. An interesting coincidence is that he was born in 1945, the year in which the last piece on the program was written. Racine is a Haitian flutist, composer and conductor. His works rely heavily on Haitian folk music mixed with contemporary harmonies and jazz influences.
His other influences peek out occasionally; such as a hint of Poulenc’s breezy café au lait language and Claude Bolling’s jazz take on it, as well as a dollop of Debussy. Flutist Helen Blackburn had her work cut out for her in that she plays almost continuously with scarcely a chance to grab a breath, let alone rest for a moment. The last movement used some repeated notes that brought Morse code to mind. But overall, it is a fun piece and, joined by pianist Anastasia Markina, the duo delivered a delightful performance.
In keeping with the title of the concert, the visit to Haitian Voodoo was followed by Hexengeheule, or the witches howl, by the American composer Andrew William Thomas. This is a piece of minimalistic static motion for the odd combination of marimba, played by Drew Lang, and timpani, played by Brian Jones.
The 20th century was an era of percussion experimentation and the orchestral battery was greatly expanded, not to mention the proliferation of percussion ensembles. In fact, the pronunciation of the German title itself creates a percussionistic effect by itself.
Thomas called it a duo but frequently the two instruments seem to be functioning in separate worlds. Occasionally, those worlds interact rhythmically but with a wide difference of the sonorities. The harder marimba mallets start the pitch with a woodblock-like click while the timpani’s softer mallets and much lower pitch range offers a complete contrast.
Both musicians had demanding music to master. Lang’s marimba part frequently required two mallets it each hand. Jones had a different challenge in that he was constantly changing pitches on his collection of drums, including some glissandi created by the creative use of the pedal that tightens or loosens the drum head. Parts of it sounded aleatoric, but there are also occasional passages of paired patterns. There were some odd sounds that the highest pitched drum, but they only added an accented surprise to the sonic milieu.
The first half ended with a piece of purely modernist experimentation. You could easily guess its character from the title, Vertical Time Study 1 for clarinet, cello and piano by the Japanese composer, Toshio Hosokawa. It was given a sympatric performance by clarinetist Paul Garner, cellist Kari Kettering and pianist Anastasia Markina.
The musical language consisted of isolated events and tone clusters as well as long-held notes of wavering pitch. Experimental effects abound, such as plucking the strings of the harp inside of the grand piano. Oddly, the sound of traffic outside of the venue added to the effect as if it was an included recording. While such music added a valuable compositional style for composers to add to their palette, it is why audiences shook their head in bewilderment and stayed away in droves. Heard with the advantage of passing time, most listeners understand what was going on at the time and are grateful for the lasting influence on the music that followed; many are pleased that we moved past it.
After intermission, the program closed with a much more traditional work with the traditional name of Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 6, by the Russian neo-romantic composer Georgy Vasilyevich Sviridov. It dates from 1945, the year the first composer on the program was born.
Sviridov’s life (1915-1998) basically mirrored the life span of the Soviet Union, which started in 1918 and ended with the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1992. Like many Russian composers of that era, he was quite well known in Russia but not very familiar to Western audiences. His entry into the worldwide audience was through his vocal music but lately his instrumental music is being introduced as well.
This performance made a good case for exploring more of Sviridov’s music. It was delivered with some passion and technical brilliance by violinist Maria Schleuning, cellist Kettering and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya.
The influence of Shostakovich hangs over this work, more in its form than its harmonic language. Right from the beginning, Sviridov establishes that he writes in a neo-romantic style and doesn’t shy away from a beautiful melody. Yet he uses some different technical experimentation such as col legno, playing the string instrument with the wood side of the bow. It fails in its dynamic range, with many long passages at the top volume level.
The excellence of this performance has inspired me to seek out more of his works.