Contemporary Music, Film Review



New Music in a New Venue at UNC

February 23, 2010 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Apropos nothing in particular, I've been revisiting Handel's vocal music of late, by means of recordings, mostly. Thinking back over some of the great Handel performances given hereabouts, my mind fastened on a particularly memorable Israel in Egypt some years back in which Florence Peacock was the soloist in the truly thrilling soprano-and-chorus finale. (Few things, even in music, are truly thrilling, of course, but this happens to be one that is.) Ever since, she's been a favorite vocalist — there are several such in the region — and I always look for opportunities to hear her. Therefore it pleased me that she was announced as the singer in a new work, Ice Counterpoint: Encounters in the Arctic, slated for the (fairly) new Nelson Mandela Auditorium in the (fairly) new FedEx Global Education Center at UNC. That title contains the word "encounters," and "Encounters" is the name of a commendable new music series at Duke that, alas, rarely draws large crowds to its offerings. At UNC, on this occasion, the place was packed for a new-music and new-video extravaganza — and that brought to mind, again, Handel, whose numerous Italian operas and subsequent English oratorios were, when he was producing them, all new, yet the public came night after night (in most cases) to listen — and, surely, to see and be seen. Back in Handel's day, new music was where it was at, as Frideric probably wouldn't have said. Somewhere along the way from then till now, new music became something to dread, something to avoid. So as has often been the case at my alma mater, it's noteworthy that UNC has again bucked the trend by according this new "entertainment" a lavish and spectacular debut — and by publicizing it well enough to attract a capacity crowd.

That crowd included Dr. and Mrs. James Peacock (for whom the atrium of the FedEx Center is named), and he was among the welcoming speakers. To him fell the honor of announcing the dedication of the evening to Douglass Hunt, one of the great movers and shakers of this great university, a man whose contributions, listed in small type, would fill a hefty tome. He was present, too, and his brilliant blue eyes danced till long after the music ended.

There were introductory remarks, too, by the creative collaborators: photographer and videographer Brooks de Wetter-Smith (who plays the flute in his spare time), composer Terry Mizesko (whose day job is playing the bass trombone for the NC Symphony), and visual artist Nerys Levy who, like the photographer, visited the Arctic and made numerous paintings while there. (Some of their work is on display through May 31 on three floors of the FexEx building.)

This multi-media event is a follow-on of sorts to Iceblink, a multi-media presentation (with video and live music) centering on the Antarctic that was presented nearly two years ago by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild; see http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/042008/Iceblink.html. For that project, UNC composer Allen Anderson provided the music and Tonu Kalam was the narrator; this time, the latter, who is the Music Director of the UNC Symphony Orchestra, conducted the chamber ensemble, helping ensure precise coordination with the video.

The players were, aside from the flutist, different this time. In addition to Florence Peacock, who sang wordless melodic lines that suggested the vocalism in Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 7, the musicians were Brooks de Wetter-Smith, flute and piccolo, Jonathan Bagg, viola, and Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp.

The music is in five movements, the third of which is in four parts. The section are I. "Ice Waltzes," II. "Sea Voyage," III. "Arctic Wildlife" (being "Whales," "Kittiwakes," "Dances with Walruses," and "Ice Bear"), IV. "Man's Footprints; Hymn," and V. "Finale."

This could hardly not deal with global warming and mankind's impact on nature (as Iceblink did, to a somewhat lesser extent). At first, it's hard to get points of reference. Are those mountains or hills? Are the glaciers or icebergs large or small? Are the drips shown in close-up just occasional things or ubiquitous? It's at once beautiful and bleak, and the music enhances the images in all the right ways. There's a glimpse of the bow of an icebreaker in the second part, and there's considerable relief in the central section, for some of the wildlife are so charming one wishes to reach out and touch them — but in the end there is no relief from the prevailing message that we have done terrible things to our world, and the sight of those bears picking their way across ever-smaller bits of broken ice proves, ultimately, overwhelming. The "Footprints" movement shows the remnants of buildings — darned if we don't leave a lot of trash in our collective wake! — and contains some of the score's bleakest music, music that is however redeemed to a certain extent by "Hymn" and then the "Finale." The visuals however give even this away, focusing on flowers that suggest spring in all its meanings, including a measure of warmth following winter....

The players gave this outstanding new score their all, and the emotional impact of the music and the videos in combination worked unusually strong magic. There was at times too much volume from the soprano (or, if you prefer, too little from the instruments) — this will surely be corrected in recording sessions that will eventually make this work accessible to many more people. There was a substantial ovation, thoroughly deserved, followed by more extended congratulations than usual for premieres, even in Chapel Hill, and a reception, one of the highlights of which was a cake in the form of an iceberg!

There will be a follow-on presentation of live solo flute with photos, video, and sounds of Antarctica in the same venue at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday April 21.