A few lucky people got to see and hear the assembled talent of some of the finest musicians from the Triangle area and beyond on November 7, in the Nelson Music Room on Duke's east campus, at the first concert in "Milestones 2002," a festival of new music co-sponsored by the Departments of Music at UNC-CH and Duke University. Although the two campuses have engaged musically in the past, this series was touted as a "milestone of cooperation," both for the compositions presented and the depth of involvement. The focus of this event and of this concert, in particular, was "new" music. There were several articles in local newspapers explaining the theme of the series and one in particular even went so far as to implore concertgoers to "give this music a chance." This sort of apologetic warning, despite its good intent, seemed counterproductive and perhaps scared away some of the people the presenters wanted to attract. This is especially ironic since the program was quite accessible and would have been enjoyed by even the most die-hard traditionalists.
At the entrance of Nelson there was a television playing computer-generated sound and visuals, developed by Dennis Miller. The best way to describe it is a kind of screen saver with sound gone berserk. A few moments with it on the way to your seat were plenty. The first thing I noticed was the incredibly informative and attractive program booklet. There were eight full pages of musician bios, notes on the pieces played and even an interview with Pierre Boulez. This was way beyond what one usually encounters at any concert and helped considerably in understanding the works played.
Unaccompanied flute is not a very common experience in the concert hall, but that was how the evening began as Brooks de Wetter Smith, Professor of Music at UNC-CH, played "East Wind," a 1988 work by Israeli-born Shulamit Ran. The work, written for a flute competition, and is a showpiece, technically, with considerable interpretive potential. Quartertones are used as integral parts of the work and not just as gimmicks. Proceeding from sections that are nearly inaudible to possibly the loudest notes I have ever heard from a flute, Smith played with impeccable virtuosity and elegance.
The first ensemble piece of the evening, "Cloud Collar," is a commissioned work for three winds, three strings and piano written just five years ago by UNC's Allen Anderson, who was in the audience. The title refers to a style of cloud-like patterns used as borders in Chinese fabric and porcelain design. The composer describes it as an attempt to balance repetitive figures (the cornerstone of "minimalist" music) with the development of those figures, and he notes that it involves a struggle of styles. Alas, it attempts too many things at once, so despite the leadership of UNC's Michael Votta, Jr., formerly affiliated with Duke, the piece seemed to collapse under its own complexity.
Departing from the order of the printed program, the second half began with an exuberant and skillful performance by Jacqui Carrasco, an extraordinary violinist currently on the faculty of Wake Forest University. "Anthemes 1," written by Pierre Boulez in 1992, is a rich and varied composition for solo violin that works on many levels. The composer wrote about this work and the subsequent "Anthemes 2" (for violin and electronics) in great length. The title is meant to be a combination of "hymn" and "theme." Carrasco's playing was, in a word, captivating. Quite often one gets the feeling that some musicians perform contemporary compositions out of a sense of obligation ? and it shows. This was an experience that was honest, deep and virtuosic. All possible effects were displayed, but everything seemed part of the compositional process. She even ably endured the nearby freight trains that seem to schedule their runs by concert times in Nelson. My only complaint was that I wish she had lowered her two music stands a few inches. I could hardly see her left arm at all, and this diminished a bit an otherwise brilliant display.
You've probably seen those listings like "the 10 greatest ACC moments of all time." If there is not already one for Triangle-area music, then there should be, and this concert's performance of "Gnarly Buttons" by John Adams would be right at the top. For those who know some of John Adams' music and were expecting 35 minutes of a C major triad in different guises, this was a great surprise and revelation. The clarinet was John Adams' first instrument, and this is basically a clarinet concerto requiring extraordinary facility on the instrument. UNC's Donald Oehler gave a memorable performance as the soloist. This work is, simply put, just a hell of a lot of fun. The scoring is rich in folk and vernacular roots of American music, rhythmically driving, and both simple and complex at the same time. It is scored for string quartet, trombone, English horn, bassoon, flute, piano and two samplers. Special recognition should be given guitarist John Mayrose (whose name was omitted from the program), who learned banjo and mandolin for this performance. For those who may have seen the CD containing this work and wondered why there is a cow on the cover, that question was answered when a loud, sampled "Moooo" joined the ensemble in the second movement. The assembled high-caliber musicians provided a special treat with this music, and everyone present experienced a unique event.