The University of North Carolina School of the Arts is known for its complement of stunning performance faculty. As one of the finest music institutions in the southern United States, UNCSA attracts professional artists of the highest caliber to its teaching force. In a performance dubbed The Seven Wonders, three of UNCSA's finest joined forces with a visiting artist in an evening of virtuoso repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Violinist Janet Orenstein is no stranger to the new and contemporary: a strong advocate of new music, Orenstein has partnered with many composers to commission and premiere new pieces. For The Seven Wonders. she brought us Lawrence Dillon's Fifteen Minutes, a suite of fifteen minute-long pieces that follow the rise and fall of a fictional celebrity.
Music for a solo string instrument certainly challenges the performer. Without other instruments to fill the sonic space, audiences can hear and scrutinize every detail of a musician's technique. Perhaps less obvious to audiences is the challenge that solo music presents to the composer. Faced with the sonic limitations of a single violin and the rather long time frame of fifteen minutes, Dillon had every chance of writing a lackluster and snooze-inducing piece. But this composer is known for his precision and musical wit, and Fifteen Minutes satisfies with plenty of laconic humor and razor-sharp characterizations.
Comedy and tragedy co-mingle in these vignettes. In one movement the violinist places a mute on the instrument and draws out a fragile lament; in another she grabs a kazoo and saws away at a drinking song while humming along in a clumsy unison. Fifteen Minutes is a weird, quiet world drawn in solitary black lines. Like a cartoonist, Dillon says everything using minimal amounts of material, and Orenstein brought out every critical detail for a moving and beautiful performance.
For the second piece, cellist Brooks Whitehouse and pianist Dmitri Shteinberg tackled Elliott Carter's Sonata for Cello and Piano of 1948, a difficult piece for performer and audience alike. Carter's musical language dispenses with traditional divisions of harmony into consonant and dissonant arrangements, instead exploring combinations of pitches openly and with an ear for unique tone colors. String players have to muster all their courage to try intonating Carter's odd harmonies, and Whitehouse met the challenge. Both he and Shteinberg played soulfully and with impressive precision.
Closing out the program was Dmitri Shostakovich's Seven Verses from 1967. A setting of texts by Russian Symbolist poet Alexander Blok, this lengthy piece is extraordinarily rich, dark, and personal. Joining Orenstein, Whitehouse, and Shteinberg was soprano Lindsay Kesselman.
Kesselman's voice is unusually rich and colorful, a perfect vehicle for Blok's text and Shostakovich's music. The chilling second movement, “Gamayun, Prophet Bird,” asks the performer to slowly build an intense crescendo over the course of eight lines of text. With Kesselman in command, the effect was terrifying. The “Prophet Bird” sang her terrible prophecy, and the audience shivered.
In the final movement, “Music,” Blok wonders what music plays in Heaven, even as earthly beings suffer in darkness and torment. Shostakovich paints the text with slow, limping figures that are distant and mysterious rather than tragic. Kesselman held back beautifully, reserving her full power for “the final foaming cup of passion,” as Blok's final lines describe the artist's offering. The Seven Wonders was a nuanced and bold program, one that asked focus and willingness of the audience but provided detailed musicianship and expressive power in return. Indeed, this act of mutual responsibility reflects the Classical Music tradition itself, and speaks volumes about UNCSA's ability to bring together audiences and musicians to the benefit of North Carolina's artistic culture. Bravi, dear musicians!