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Report back: New Voices 6/27/09

June 30, 2009

I was in Philly this past weekend to catch up with some friends, help people move, and luckily, check out a free concert at the First Unitarian Church on Saturday night.  It was presented by the American Composers Forum-Philadelphia and Dolce Suono Chamber Concert Series.

The surprisingly full audience was treated to a diverse selection of new works by seven Philadelphia composers performed by the Metal & Wood Band, an ensemble led by Mimi Stillman on Flute, with guitarist Allen Krantz, violist Burchard Tang, and bassist Emilio Gravagno also performing.  As a whole the ensemble played well together.  At times the bass overpowered the group, which may have been the church’s resonance fault or just the nature of the instruments.  Stillman’s playing was very exciting and strong throughout the program.  Her full tone and focused performance was a highlight of the night.

Speaking of which, the music presented to the audience was an extremely varied assortment of pieces.  Generally – they were never challenging to the point of overwhelming or entertaining to the point of being flimsy.

The concert started with William Dougherty’s Karlsplatz, a dissonant work the played with the different tone colors available for the whole ensemble stood out mostly for its rhythmic energy throughout.  I was lucky enough to be sitting next to a four year old that was literally rocking out to this music. 

Michael Djupstrom’s Sejdefu majka budase  followed on the program.  Written for flute and guitar, it is a folk song transcription.  What stood out to me during the performance was how, even though the flute would be generally considered the solo instrument in this setting, the guitarist seemed to be taking on the virtuosic role, commenting on the flute’s melody and (unsung) text with a virtuosity that fascinated me. 

The next piece on the program was David Bennett Thomas’ Whim for solo flute.  Employing loose, but fast, rhythmic structures, the piece flew by.  It was entertaining for the audience and challenging for the performer. 

The last piece on the first half of the program was Joseph Hallman’s Lullaby.  Written as mostly a solo for (alto) flute with accompaniment (by the viola/bass.  As Hallman said before the piece, the guitar is hard to write for, so he didn’t.)  As such, the supporting instruments generally took a background role, filling in with mostly plucked strings and using their instruments as percussion instruments.  The relaxed form and independent instrument roles worked well for the Lullaby concept.  The alto flute is a pretty instrument, though it sometimes gets eaten up in volume, which happened somewhat here, probably serendipitously giving a dreamlike feel to the music.

The Exchange for all four instruments by Michael John Ceurvost opened up the second half of the program, and was conducted by Jeremy Gill.  It explored the contrast between very dissonant and tonal sections.  The work was also the most contrapuntal on the program – the guitar’s unique sound in the group with plucked/decaying sounds was handled delicately by Ceurvost and stood out as interesting but not distracting.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Kevin Clark was perhaps the most challenging for the audience of the night.  For solo flute with the flautist reciting the famous poem, it required the audience to hold onto the text and hear the flute passages in alternation.  Its a piece that really demands multiple listens to be fully appreciated, but Stillman’s performance of the work was electrifying, if a little quiet.

The final piece on the concert was Thomas Smith’s Changing Elevations for the entire ensemble.  This was fun, vibrant piece that bounced around an idea throughout the group.  The idea was written for guitar, and a little idiosyncratic to that instrument, which made the translation to the other string instruments and flute interesting.  The work was a natural closer, ending upbeat and energetic.  Thomas mentions in his notes that the piece could be a movement to a larger work, which I hope to hear at some point.

Its not often enough that concert goers can be treated to a concert as even as this, both in terms of  performance and repertoire.  Hopefully these pieces will find their ways to other programs in the future. 

A final note – it is too often that all premieres concerts like this one try to generate an audience by giving  itself away for free.  Luckily grant money can help make this happen from time to time, but I really don’t think it would have hurt the attendance to pass around for a donation to go to the people that made this music happen.  There is no such thing as a free concert, eh?

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