There are, close in, several admirable series devoted to new (or "contemporary") music. One expects these at conservatories and music schools, of course, so it is no surprise that Duke has one, named "Encounters... with the Music of Our Time," and that UNC used to have one (but alas no longer seems to), but it may come as a shock to some readers to learn that one of the most successful such runs of programs has been given (and continues) at NCSU, thanks to composer Rodney Waschka II. Like many small performing arts presenters, the ArtsNow series has had some tough times this season, but three stimulating programs were put forward, and apparently they provided great musical and intellectual stimulation for their usually small but committed audiences. Waschka is a computer music geek, but he's in excellent company, and over the years he has brought some of his most distinguished colleagues from around the world to the NCSU campus. Given his strong advocacy for cutting-edge work, sometimes involving videos and almost invariably centering on recently-created pieces, a healthy number of which have been premiered at these concerts, the program of the final ArtsNow concert of the current season, presented on March 4 in the Ballroom of the Student Center, was somewhat atypical. For openers, there were some fairly old things on the program, and some of the composers represented had names that will be instantly recognizable by mainstream music lovers who probably wouldn't get caught dead at "new music" concerts. The performances were, with one exception, given by a real, living, breathing musician (two, in some cases), as opposed to a machine. Overall, the results were refreshing and rewarding.
The guest artists were Phil Barham, whose alto saxophone figured in six of the seven works heard, and pianist Yu-Lien The. Both have impressive credentials, which were provided in the several pages of comprehensive if occasionally cryptic program notes, without which members of the critical confraternity (and perhaps other listeners) would have been somewhat up the creek, paddleless.
The program began with Srul Irving Glick's "Suite Hebraique" (1979), the fourth of six such suites by the late Canadian composer. It is in largely traditional harmonies, and portions of the six-movement score often suggest Klezmer licks and melodies. Just prior to the performance, Waschka introduced his guests, commenting on Barham's tone, which he said has a certain "dark richness" that he has long admired. It was not only Barham's truly remarkable sound but also his astounding technique and overall musicianship that wowed this listener in the opening work and, indeed, throughout the evening.
Waschka's own "Singing in Traffic" (1997), composed for NCSU-based cellist Jonathan Kramer, sounded different but every bit as wonderful when played on an alto sax. This is "contemporary" music of a kind often heard on ArtsNow programs, featuring a live player with a computer-generated tape. It is, in its own way, very much a mood piece, akin in many respects to impressionistic tone poems.
Ned Rorem (of all people) was represented by "Picnic on the Marne" (1983), a seven-section series of mostly short vignettes said to depict various experiences ("Driving from Paris") and images ("A Bend in the River," for example), along with a dance, vermouth(!), a minor disagreement, and the return home. Rorem is of course best known for his songs and his diaries (or, perhaps more accurately, his diaries and his songs); I recall a visit by him to Raleigh, years ago, when John Gosling led the NCS in one of his orchestral works. "Picnic" is at once jazzy and oh-so French, and it was lovely, as given at NCSU.
A short purely-computer-realized piece by Colby Leider, "Taedet animam meam" (1999), served as an intermission for the performers (there was none for the audience). With a bit of this and that - bells, chimes, gongs, modified choral passages, and not too much oscillator noise - the two-channel tape created a mood that complemented all the other works.
Daniel Asia's "The Alex Set" (1994), apparently written for an oboist, appears to have been based on a much earlier work named "Alex," but whether it originally involved an oboe is unclear. The five-part composition (three sections called "Alex [I-II-III]," with I serving as the "theme" for the "variations" that are II and III; and two exceedingly brief interludes) sounded thoroughly idiomatic in Barham's and The's hands, and portions of it positively glowed.
The only woman composer represented was Amy Quate, whose "Light of Sothis" (1982) starts out sounding a good bit like some of Debussy's most dream-like scores. The contrasting second movement is for the most part quite animated, although it contains an inner section, which serves as its "trio," that returns to the reflective mood of the first part.
The concert ended with Robert Muczynski's Sonata, Op. 29, composed in 1970 and thus the evening's oldest score. For Waschka programs, this means it was practically ancient music, but it seemed ideal for showing off the guest artists' many skills. The score itself is at times dark and intense, and during it one often felt the low vibrations of the saxophone. The finale of this two-movement work is a dazzling and wild ride, often quite riotous, that brought a stunning display of virtuosity from both players.
For a recap of the 2002-3 ArtsNow series, now ended, see http://www4.ncsu.edu/~waschka/artsnow.html . For more information on Waschka and his work, see http://www4.ncsu.edu:8030/~waschka/ [inactive 9/06]. And for details of next season's offerings, check our series tab in early September.