Voices of Change is one of the most innovative musical performance groups in Dallas. They always present intriguing concerts in which some of the best artists in the city play contemporary music that you won't hear anywhere else. Sunday's program, at Dallas City Performance Hall, perfectly illustrates this. The music was by familiar names such as William Bolcom and Tobias Picker, and more unfamiliar ones, such as Dwayne Rice, Isang Yun and Dana Wilson.
As for musicians, from the Dallas Symphony there was Haley Hoops (horn), Maria Schleuning (violin), Paul Garner (clarinet), Barbara Sudweeks (viola), and Kari Nostbakken (cello). From the Dallas Opera Orchestra, we heard Helen Blackburn (flute) as well as Deborah Mashburn and Drew Lang (percussion). Shields-Collins Bray is the pianist with the Fort Worth Symphony and Artistic Director of the Cliburn Foundation's Cliburn at the Modern series. Pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya and mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy are on the faculty of Southern Methodist University.
Lang started things off with Dwayne Rice's Variations for Marimba (2005). We watched him play this from an interesting perspective. He faced the back corner of the stage. This was so the audience could see him play since the music stand would have blocked him if he faced the audience. This was an odd but successful decision because his movements were part of the show as he moved back and forth along the long instrument (10 feet maybe). The marimba, like the mandolin, requires very fast repeated notes to sustain a tone. Rice took this as a starting point and then set the instrument off on fast passages, at the same rapid speed, up and down the instrument. The variations were set as separate contrasting movements and it would have helped, to follow along, if the various sections had been listed in the program.
Isang Yun, a composer with Korean-German heritage, was represented by Espace I, for cello (Nostbakken) and piano (Georgievskaya), which was written in 1992. This was the most harmonically experimental work on the program and it had an improvisatory feel, whether it was aleatoric or not. Both instruments were taken to the extremes of their range with wide leaps to get there. The center section had lots of long held notes in the cello with quarter tones tossed in for harmonic spice. The work drifted away instead of ending. Both players were impressive throughout but the piece itself failed to hold interest, or at least mine.
Dana Wilson's Shallow Streams and Deep Rivers, for horn (Hoops), violin (Schleuning) and piano (Georgievskaya) dates from 2007. This is the same instrumentation that Brahms used for his horn trio and that work is so successful that composers have stayed away for the combination. For that reason alone, Wilson's piece is most welcome. The main takeaway was Hoops' impressive performance. What a wonderful horn player! Schleuning and Georgievskaya also turned in stellar performances of this very difficult work, but Hoops was amazing. Few have ever had the chance to hear her play as a soloist. We can only hope for another opportunity.
William Bolcom's Let Evening Come was originally written in 1994 and was revised in 2003. It is a song cycle of three poems for mezzo-soprano (Dupuy), viola (Sudweeks ) and piano (Bray). Any chance to hear Dupuy is a good day. She has a real mezzo voice, dark and creamy, with an evenness that extends from the bottom to the considerable top of her voice. Good thing too, because Bolcom makes extraordinary demands, including soprano-high pianissimo floaty notes. Bray is one of the best collaborative pianists around and Sudweeks is a virtuoso violist. All this combined for what was a most enjoyable performance. Dupuy's good diction aside, it would have been better if the lights were a little brighter so we could follow the words in the program.
Tobias Picker's The Blue Hula gave the concert its name, however it was not the interesting piece on the program. Dating from 1981, it was the oldest piece presented. It also used the biggest instrumentation of the evening: flute (Blackburn), clarinet (Garner), violin (Schleuning), cello (Nostbakken) piano (Georgievskaya), and percussion using a vibraphone and glockenspiel (Mashburn). Musically, it switched wildly from event driven modernism to jazzy pop, from the chorale-like opening to splintered miscellaneous motives and from repeated patterns to extended melodies. Neither the percussionist nor pianist got any big solo passages but they functioned as the underpinning of the entire piece. It was hard to follow, but worth the effort.
This was the most successful concert, so far, in the new Dallas City Performance Hall. A big improvement was the use of a Yamaha piano (slightly out of tune) instead of the dreadful Kawai that was there previously. It is still too bright at the top range but, thankfully, acceptable. We can only hope that a truly fine piano ends up as the permanent resident. The adjustable acoustics have been off in previous hearings but seemed to be just about right on Sunday evening. One musician in the audience thought that it needed to be a little more live, and his point was not without merit. However, it was certainly a big improvement over other visits.
The big question is why this concert was so poorly attended. You can only assume that the music of the early to mid-20th century so alienated audiences that the word "contemporary" itself is enough to keep people away in droves. Well, you need to come back. Sunday's concert was full of superbly performed music that was easy to love.