Listeners heard two widely diverse kinds of contemporary music in the two portions of the ninth annual NewMusic@ECU Festival in Greenville. As the slogan of the public radio program "Composer's Datebook" points out, "All music was once new." So, in this case, the programs contained "new" music ranging from the mid-1940s to 2008. And what a variety of music has come out of those six decades!
The Daedalus Quartet, a group of hotshot young string players whose repertoire ranges from Haydn to the most contemporary of composers, gave its audience a taste of the more challenging side of modern music, opening with a 2004 piece by Scottish composer David Horne (written for the quartet), and also including Elliott Carter's String Quartet No. 5 and Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 2.
These musicians — brother and sister violinists Kyu-Young Kim and Min-Young Kim, violist Jessica Thompson, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan — possess an abundance of technical skill. They know and show what limits they can take their instruments to, as required by the idiosyncrasies of the score, and they pour considerable energy into their playing. They produced many different string sounds on Horne's "Flight from the Labyrinth," which is filled with frequent busy-ness as it opens with something resembling the sound of insects (or perhaps part of a score from The Twilight Zone?). On more than one occasion, dissonance trumps harmony, and a variety of unusual fingering and bowing techniques takes place both simultaneously and randomly, as does a variety of rhythms. At times, the players, especially the two violinists, produced almost a metallic sound from their strings.
The Carter quartet (1995) contains a slightly more traditional approach to instrumentation, but only just. Divided into six sections but played with barely perceptible pauses between sections, the piece starts with each instrument playing a few solo measures in turn, then soon evolves into random lines, occasional unison lines, and lines that could easily be played as solos in different rooms, perhaps even different area codes. Part of one section could be background sound (almost music) for a subway platform at rush hour. Carter, who turned 100 in December, might be widely regarded as America's greatest contemporary composer, and the audience (consisting mainly of younger listeners) certainly approved of the work, but for at least one listener, the line between music and sound was pretty emphatically crossed. Presumably, the quartet played well; the composition made it difficult to tell.
On the other hand, Benjamin Britten's second string quartet contained deeply emotional and much more accessible music. Written in 1945 shortly after he and Yehudi Menuhin visited Germany after World War II ended in Europe, the quartet reflects Britten's profound shock at seeing concentration camp survivors. His quartet contains starkness and subtlety, darkness and light, emotion and nervous energy. He paired instruments in some lines, and he also scored three instruments together, with the fourth playing its own separate line. The strummed cello behind the intense closing violin and viola chords of the first "allegro" movement creates a lovely sound, for example, and he offers a surprising jazzy, bluesy theme for the first violin in the middle "Vivace" movement, played against muted strings. The final "Chacony" movement gradually builds in intensity, at times pitting pairs of instruments against each other, at other times contrasting three instruments against the fourth. But one is not prepared for the brilliant closing, which encompasses all the drama of the piece in a series of progressively and intensely rich, full chords.
The night before, the ECU Chamber Singers displayed stunning vocal artistry in a program of works seldom, if ever, heard in these parts. Performing both a cappella pieces and pieces accompanied by one wind instrument, the approximately 45 singers, under the direction of Dr. Daniel Bara, presented a more traditional, but no less demanding, program of contemporary choral works from the past two decades.
The highlight of the evening was the North American premier of Norwegian composer Egil Hovland's "Agnus Dei," Op. 167, written in 2002. In the piece, scored for choir and bassoon, Christopher Ulffers* accompanied the singers as they presented a series of pretty much unendingly glorious choral lines against occasionally tricky instrumental lines that stretched at least two octaves. While Hovland won't win style points for the text — the opening "Agnus Dei" section was simply the two words sung dozens of times, for instance — he fashioned beautiful harmonies, including gorgeous suspensions that the young singers handled with a surprising maturity of vocal sound. In addition to his scoring for the bassoon, Hovland also placed considerable demands on the singers, particularly in sections that ended on absurdly long sustained chords. Yet so good are these singers that one could not detect any breathing.
John Rutter was represented by "Hymn to the Creator of Light," which is more complex musically and structurally than many of the Rutter pieces that have found their way into church choir repertoires. Written for double choir and containing up to ten parts, the piece has a somber sound, with unexpected suspensions adding to the overall interest.
The newest piece was by Anthony J. Maglione, who earned his master's degree at ECU in 2007 and is now studying at UCLA. "O Thou Great Power, in Whom I Move," written for choir and clarinet, is a short piece but quite lovely, with some passages that resembled the harmonic scoring of Morten Lauridsen. Christopher Grymes* accompanied the choir well, as he did on Howard Helvey's "O quam gloriosum," which ended on an incredible chord built on the basses singing a strong low D in the final "Alleluia."
An opening piece, "Eternal Light," by Leo Sowerby (1958), a 12-part "Ave Maria" by Cary Boyce (1997), and "Cedit, Hyems" ("Be Gone, Winter!") by Abbie Betnis (2003), with flutist Christine Gustafson* accompanying the choir, also were on the program. The Betnis piece included an opening flute passage that sounded like the winter wind, and one could hear driving sleet in a part of the vocal line.
*Ulffers, Grymes, and Gustavson are all members of ECU's music faculty.