All music was once new. Although glaringly obvious, this simple, clichéd truth can still be thought provoking when confronted with the new, the nearly new and how time and exposure affects perception. In one spectacular program, the audience at Duke University’s Page Auditorium had the unique opportunity to experience contemporary music at its newest and freshest and to also revisit an established “new” classic.
Peering out from the cover of the handsomely produced programs of Duke Performances' Essential Classics Series are soprano Dawn Upshaw and composer Osvaldo Golijov. Although they were certainly the big draw for this concert, the less heralded Chicago-based new music sextet, eighth blackbird, was the musical glue of the evening. The members of this group were not only the featured performers of the first half, but they also played, along with six additional musicians, in the featured money shot work after intermission.
The stage had a decidedly non-classical concert look with stacked amplifiers, tables filled with dozens of percussion instruments and the feel of a rock concert. Out stepped the six members of eighth blackbird to perform “Meanwhile – Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays” by Stephen Hartke. Commissioned by this ensemble, it was just completed in 2007 as a work in six distinct but continuous sections meant to serve as incidental music to Asian theater and puppet plays. Scored for flutes, clarinets, violin, viola, cello, piano and a slew of percussion instruments, this is a work that is accessible but not pandering, creative and adept at using contemporary techniques but not pompous, displaying an expert feel for orchestration. There was also a wonderful and wide diversity of textures and rhythmic energy that kept the listener eager to hear what was coming next. That is the essence of good art, and Hartke and eighth blackbird conspired to provide such a creation.
The composer George Crumb is as much about theater as he is music. Recently, we in the Triangle got to hear an outstanding performance of his Black Angels, performed by the Ciompi Quartet. Tonight was Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for amplified flute, cello and piano. Written in 1971 following his monumental Ancient Voices of Children, this work is indeed inspired by recordings of the actual “singing” of humpback whales. As indicated in the score, each player wears a mask and performs under deep-blue stage lighting. Timothy Munro, flute, Nicholas Photinos, cello and Lisa Kaplan, piano were absolutely mesmerizing in both their musical execution and commitment, and their theatrical flair. The timeless quality of the composition is enhanced by the titles of the central variations of the work: all named after geological eras. The flute part uses especially effective features such as singing and/or humming simultaneously while playing — something that Ian Anderson of the rock group Jethro Tull would later use to amass quite a fortune. The work sounds primarily as you would expect, given the title, until the epilogue when there is a sudden switch to rapturous, lyrical passages reminiscent of the French impressionists.
While many composers, and other creative artists, may spend much of their time and effort striving to be understood, some become trapped in the conundrum of being too well understood. Such seems to be the predicament of Osvaldo Golijov. Born into an Eastern European Jewish family but brought up in Argentina, Golijov has become an enormously popular composer who melds many different cultures and styles, thus creating a unique blend that has nearly become a brand name. This has had great resonance with the public and multitudes of musicians, while others accuse him of “cultural robbery” and pandering to the masses. Mon Dieu!
Dawn Upshaw, in addition to the rest of her long and distinguished career, has become Golijov’s favorite soprano, and he has written many of his major works with her in mind. In 2004 he wrote the song cycle Ayre (“air” or “melody”), a set of 11 songs in Spanish that fuse the Christian, Arab and Jewish cultures of southern Spain. Taking the stage were a dozen musicians calling themselves Orquesta Los Pelegrinos (actually eighth blackbird plus six more birds). They were arranged in a semi-circle with instrumentation that ran the gamut from the traditional to laptops to something called a hyper-accordion – your basic squeezebox after hanging out with Roger Clemens. Ms. Upshaw was resplendent and vibrant in black with a bright shawl; she used an attached [cordless] microphone freeing her to move about unencumbered. Golijov expertly takes advantage of the infinite possibilities of textures and orchestration at his disposal, from raucous rock-band like numbers to a wistful, delicate song accompanied only by classical guitar. Ms. Upshaw not only has the effortless vocal range needed to cover this expanse of emotion and technique, but she also has the physical and theatrical temperament to inhabit the poetry and make us believe it.
You could feel the special bond and love that all these performers had for each other and Ayre as they simply glowed throughout the performance and their bows. This was a great coup for Duke Performances and everyone in attendance. New music need not feel like a punishment.