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Greenville, NC, home of East Carolina University and its Pirates is at about the furthest extent of my range as a critic based in the Raleigh-Durham area. On arrival at ECU Music’s Fletcher Recital Hall I discovered parking was scarce and difficult. Be that as it may: the program offered by Christine Gustafson, professor of flute at ECU, entitled “North and South, Through Wind and Rain” was ample recompense, including a gamut of twentieth-century music for flute and piano (Jeremy Thompson) and a world-premiere.
Opening the program was a transcription of a number from the Bach B minor Mass for soprano, tenor, obbligato flute and piano, the Domine Deus, with fellow faculty members Rachel Copeland, soprano, and Andrew Crane, tenor. To my ears, this rendition of a single moment from an extended movement of a liturgical masterwork added nothing to the evening, unfortunately, taken out of context, and rendered on instruments (modern flute and concert grand) that have nothing to do with the original rather intimate sound-world of this moment. The whole effect was generic and not involving, and the evening would have been better off without it.
The real matter of the evening got under way with a brief but attractive work, "Free as a Bird" (1995) by South Carolinian Donald Sloan (based at Coastal Carolina University in Conway SC), opening with a solo arabesque, and continuing in the vein of what one might think of as Levantine bird song with support from the piano. Quite rewarding – I hope he will write more for the flute.
The long and challenging First Sonata for flute and piano (1945) by Bohuslav Martinů, written for Georges Laurent, filled out the rest of the first half. This is a staple of the modern flute repertoire, technically difficult and musically rewarding for both the solo flute and the accompanist (though Thompson did not have a solo moment on the program, it was plentifully evident from his playing here that he can boast both technical and musical mastery on his instrument). Gustafson did an admirable job of projecting her line against the support of the concert Steinway, playing with brilliance, and yet I can’t help wondering if the music might not be better served by a smaller piano with a considerably quieter voice, so that the flute does not have to work so hard. Even within the world of the twentieth-century flute, it is well-known that flutes have had to become increasingly loud of voice in order to compete. Gustafson was able to show off a larger variety of color in the Adagio (E-flat minor/major). The closing Allegro was playful, but might have been even lighter.
Gustafson was worthy of all praise for presenting the two works that opened the second half, Of Water and Clouds (1986) and the connected “…of rain and gusty wind” by Elena Ruehr, the latter commissioned by Gustafson, and here receiving its world premiere. Ruehr, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a brilliant and original voice deserving wider recognition. She already has a substantial body of string quartets to her credit. She appeared on stage to give the audience a view of the genesis of the two works, the earlier depicting the process of transformation in the cycle of rain and evaporation, written for her fellow student composer and flutist Su Lian Tan, and the latter reflecting some East Asian poetry on the cycle of life (“young, old, plump, slim”). Both works are difficult, challenging, but in-drawing and clear in their structure (she invited us to guess which musical motive in the former represented “evaporation”). The latter made extensive use of quarter-tone slides (an oriental touch?), very effectively done by Gustafson, and heightened in their effect by her relatively straight and vibrato-less tone. They were warmly welcomed by the audience, and certainly represented the musical climax of the evening. I hope they will soon be as familiar to the flutist as the Martinů.
Closing the program were two slighter works, if not bagatelles – the Reverie et Petite Valse of André Caplet, played with charming good humor, and the "Inúbia do Caboclinho," a familiar work in the Brazilian flute repertoire, and rarely heard north of the Amazon, by César Guerra-Peixe (1914-1993). All in all a highly challenging and rewarding program, with plaudits due for bringing one of our important young composers to Greenville.