Forecast Music, directed by composer Eric Schwartz, is a fixture in central North Carolina. Featuring some of the finest Classical musicians in the area, Forecast presents attractive and varied programs that draw from the enormous breadth of New Music – experimental music from the second half of the 20th century through to the present.
This particular program, titled “East Meets West Meets East Meets...,” featured pieces composed in the Western tradition but borrowing Eastern sounds and symbols.
Elizabeth Clendinning, an ethnomusicologist from Wake Forest University, opened the concert with some remarks about the connections between contemporary music and the various art forms of Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. Tracing this history of association as far back as Claude Debussy and his famous exposure to the Indonesian gamelan at the 1889 World's Fair, Clendinning explained how the instrumental colors, stylistic ornaments, and subject matter of various Eastern musical traditions have influenced Western composers since the very beginning of “modern music.”
Eric Schwartz's own recent composition “Only Just a Whisper” provided an appropriate introduction. Beginning with the striking unison glissandi characteristic of Japanese Gagaku music, and quoting the famous melody, “Etenraku,” Schwartz eventually led the audience through a collage of styles and timbres. Mezzo soprano Clara O'Brien alternated between her magnificent full chest voice, a sultry scat, and naïve straight-toned solfege exercises. Percussionist John Beck submerged a tam-tam in a bucket of water. Pianist James Douglass quoted Mozart. Schwartz is known for his musical wit and humor, and “Only Just a Whisper” indeed traversed Occident and Orient with tongue-in-cheek.
Schwartz's piece also highlighted the evening's one real fault: “Only Just a Whisper” was the only recent piece on the program. The next youngest composition was Michael Udow's “Toyama” from 1993. To Forecast's credit, the oldest piece on the program was Ryo Noda's relatively recent “Maï” from 1975; but for a new music ensemble to present just one piece from the last 20 years is a missed opportunity. Luckily, Forecast performs often, and audiences can certainly expect them to fill in the temporal gaps.
Two of the evening's compositions borrowed techniques from the revered Shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute. John Steinmetz's Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, performed by Michael Burns and Douglass, featured the grace notes and slides so suggestive of the Shakuhachi. Like a master Kabuki performer striking a slow, difficult pose, Burns slowly and expertly slid between fingerings – no easy task on the modern bassoon. Against a backdrop of huge, resonant chords on the piano, Burns' airy timbre was enchanting.
Saxophonist Taimur Sullivan performed Noda's “Maï.” Whereas the Steinmetz sonata drew out long resonant spaces and focused on timing and atmosphere, Noda incorporated the glissandi and grace notes into a more rigid, Berio-esque structure. With striking divisions between high and low registers and loud and soft notes, “Maï” worked beautifully in the resonant space of the overlook gallery at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.
The smallest piece on the program was also one of the most beautifully crafted. Kenneth Frazelle's “Small Song” is an excerpt from his 1985 cycle Worldly Hopes, which features the poetry of Frazelle's friend and mentor A.R. Ammons. Remarking that he himself is a collector of Japanese art, Frazelle drew some connections between the brevity of “Small Song” and the aphoristic style of much Japanese art and poetry. Though it lasts barely a minute, “Small Song” is as finely-etched as the great wood block prints of Hiroshige, whom Frazelle so admires.
North Carolina is especially rich in contemporary classical music and musicians. Even so, Forecast boasts a remarkably strong repertory of players. To experience musicians of this caliber applying their art and knowledge to New Music is always a thrill.