Even though athletic events may have distracted the attention of some Carolinians, a large and enthusiastic audience was present for the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's Sights and Sounds on Sundays concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The Blue Ridge Chamber Players presented an unusual and rewarding program of four very diverse trios for flute, cello, and piano, with two works from the twentieth century and two from the twenty-first. The program began with a work from 1921, the Three Aquarelles, by Philippe Gaubert, one of those French composers known only to flutists and connoisseurs of the instrument (with Paul Taffanel, he produced the standard method now used worldwide). The three movements (more or less, fast-slow-fast) depict a bright morning, a fall evening, and a serenade. For my taste, the pieces are rather too large for the amount of invention they contain, particularly the opening movement. The style recalls Debussy, but without the memorable melodies and turns of harmony that make each of his creations unique. Strangely, even with the piano lid down the balance was such that the flute’s contributions did not always tell, the culprit probably being the particularly dry acoustic of the auditorium (and matters were probably worse farther back).
Next came a special commission for the BRCP and the RCMG, a work titled \\\ Elements by North Carolina native (and now South Carolina resident) Ronald Keith Parks. Parks’ idiom is much more concise than Gaubert’s, and he managed incisively to depict eight works from the North Carolina Museum of Art collection (two sculptures and eight paintings) in a minute or two each – pieces by Thomas Sayre, Lee Mullican, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Tom Phillips, George Bireline, and Ronald Blade. (Of course, some of these artists produce work so self-similar that these character pieces might work for many, if not all of their productions.) I was impressed by Parks’ original voice, and the young critic who accompanied me pronounced this work his favorite of the four.
After intermission came another set of character pieces, in this case illustrating animals from medieval bestiaries, Beasts (2002), by Charles Abramovic. The middle ages was represented by some medieval-ish nattering (not very successful, to my ear) introducing the Manticore, the Swan, and the Leucrota (nos. 1 and 3 being mythical beasts from India, the former eating human flesh, and the latter a mix of the lion and hyena). The Manticore was noisy and dissonant, and the Leucrota featured runs, presto, a real virtuoso turn for the players.
A final gem for the afternoon’s listeners was a work more familiar by name than by appearance, the Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) by George Crumb, a classic from 1971, and with the sort of style full of extended techniques and special effects that one scarcely ever hears any more. Crumb calls for the performers to wear masks and play under deep blue lighting (both of these were a bridge too far for Raleigh in 2013). The movement titles, with their references to the beginning of time, sea-time, and the end of time, reference Messiaen (the Quartet for the End of Time), closer to Crumb then than we are now to this piece. It was an unexpected pleasure to be able to hear this influential piece, and to hear it so beautifully and compellingly played. Amy Orsinger Whitehead’s combined singing/playing in the “Vocalise” was as effective as one might imagine (she sings very well for a flutist!), the piano plucking by Tomoko Deguchi was musically effective, and not just theater, and Nick Lampo’s whale songs (sliding cello harmonics) sounded like the real thing. Hearing this four-decade-old work showed just how far musical idioms have changed since the sixties, and often, unfortunately, in a cautious direction.