Bruce Adolphe is a storyteller; instruments are his actors. His works beg us to pay close attention as his character sketches unfold.
Departing from previous programs, the last concert in the Voices of Change season featured the works of a single composer Sunday night at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium. Adolphe is both an acclaimed composer and a music scholar. His compositions include four operas and works for Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
In the first piece, Three Secret Stories, Adolphe lets the audience know he’s telling a story, yet does not give a plot. Movements are described by tempo: flowing, suspended, quickly. Violinist Maria Schleuning and pianist Marija Stroke (Adolphe’s wife) seem to portray a relationship. The violin and piano intersect, but never quite unite. Musically, they harmonize, but both instruments never quite play in tandem. There is a poignant beauty and loneliness to the music, as if two people never quite come together. They play the same piece, but not the same song. In the rare moments they do come together, the music seems angry, but engaged. Each instrument is essentially alone with moments of tentative connection. Violin motifs move upward as if asking questions. The piano responds but never answers.
Three Secret Stories shows the secret disjointed moments of a relationship that seems beautifully harmonious to outsiders. Schleuning plays with heartbreaking beauty, which heightens the sense of loneliness.
Based on a collection of Native American poetry, Wind Across the Sky is a song cycle for soprano and piano trio. In the evening’s second piece, motifs call to mind wind, Native American drums and flowing water. Stroke’s piano is flowing and glistening. A small woman, Kari Nostbakken, plays the cello with surprising strength and masculinity. Schleuning’s violin seems almost human in its voicing. Above this, Elizabeth Racheva’s soprano voice floats above as if carried by the wind and the water. She sings with a striking vulnerability that can be at times warm or angry.
The third piece, The Tiger’s Ear, is based on a 1940s modern art journal, The Tiger’s Eye. Here, Adolphe reacts musically to several abstract expressionist artists which were featured in The Tiger’s Eye. Each movement of The Tiger’s Ear is titled after a different artist. An example of the artist’s work is displayed on a screen, followed by its musical interpretation. These artists included Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Willem de Kooning.
Abstract expressionism is illusively uncomplicated. At first glance, it seems too easy, too simple. It’s that very simplicity that begs the question, “Is that all there is?” The answer is always no. There is much more depth and meaning to abstract expressionism.
Before the Pollock movement, an image of a black and white Pollock painting is shown. Black splattered lines boldly cross and intersect. The corresponding musical reflection has a frenetic energy. Driving musical lines are splattered with staccato arpeggios. Lucille Chung, pianist, plays these lines with chutzpah, like Pollock’s daring paint lines.
Another standout is the Barnett Newman movement. The audience is shown a green and blue brush-stroked canvas, with yellow and orange lines boldly crossing horizontally. These lines cut the blue-green block into a triptych. What on earth can be said about a block of colors? Once the piano starts playing, the sparkling and flowing music make it clear the blue-green blocks were deep, clear water. The stings play straightforward, bright lines. Schleuning and Nostbakken are joined by Ellen Rose on viola, a sparkling trio. Willa Henigman on oboe and Helen Blackburn on flute, play brightly but with warmth. One can almost see the yellow and orange lines cutting across the cool watery background.
The image of the Rothko painting is a bold but clashing mix of lime green, turquoise, lapis blue and bright orange. This seemingly clashing color scheme is both dramatic and pleasing. Adolphe matches this pleasant clashing with jazz chords.
Adolphe’s music can be deceptively simple, yet intensely complex. It takes attentive observations to pick up the subtle nuances. However, the casual listener can easily enjoy Adolphe’s music. His music has the unique quality of speaking to all listeners, regardless of musical knowledge.
Sadly, there was a preventable flaw to Sunday’s program. Voices of Change staff members took pictures throughout the performance. While it is understandable they might want to record it, the area for the photographers could have been corded off. Instead, they crawled over audience members and made disturbing gestures among the photographers. This could have been avoided with proper planning. It was ironic that a concert, which required the close attention of the audience, was marred by this lack of attention.