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One can always count on hearing well-prepared performances at the concerts of the UNCG Contemporary Chamber Players. Taking advantage of the last of composer Nathaniel Stookey's three years as Composer-in Residence with the North Carolina Symphony (and other organizations), Robert Gutter assembled a retrospective covering fifteen years of the composer's career for the April 23 concert, which took place in the intimate Organ Hall of the UNCG School of Music. Stookey gave some brief background about the works and answered questions from the small but attentive audience. Having been impressed with the Ciompi Quartet's debut of the composer's String Quartet last year, I found a five-work survey was irresistible. The few orchestral works that I have heard were too much of the "dutiful short occasional work" type, doomed to disappear after the credited first performances.
Above the Thomas Gate (2001), for piano trio, was commissioned by the Mallarmé Chamber Players and Meet The Composer, Inc., and premiered March 18, 2002, in Durham. Dedicated to the pianist Benjamin Firth, the piece is based on a quote from Robert Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze , with which the pianist had won the Rubinstein International Competition. The full musical quotation appears only in the closing moments, but elements pervade the work from the beginning. Sun Hee Kim played the fairly repetitive piano part with the piano lid fully down. Against her steady pulse, Kimberly Farlow played her violin in its highest register, and Meaghan Skogen, her cello, in its lower range. Both used the full lengths of their bows in long, slow strokes. The strings were sometimes contrasted and sometimes in unison. It ended "pp." The work is an interesting study in both color and dynamic nuances. The title comes from a quote in a letter from Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck in which he proposed that they both play the Adagio from Chopin's Variations at the same pre-arranged time so they could meet "spiritually...; the point where our Doppelgänger will encounter each other would probably be above the Thomas gate."
Stookey said that he wrote his first professional commission, Fête- Dieu (1988), under the influence of Dance; the seventeen-year-old had seen some of great Stravinsky ballets performed by the Joffrey Ballet. Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for their New and Unusual Music Series, it is scored for violin, clarinet, horn, cello, and two percussionists. Pizzicato cello notes open the work, soon joined by long horn notes and the clarinet, with extreme high notes on the violin heard in the first of nine short "scenes." Marimba and vibraphone add their tones later. One scene features the "bell-like" tones of a marimba set against a rhythmic clarinet part and singing strings.
Easily the most impressive work was Sonatina for Sam (1993), for solo cello, commissioned by Sam Bass, of the Rilke String Quartet and the band Deadweight. The composer writes, "the opening notes of the piece (A-flat, E-flat, D, G, C) are a reordering of the pitches from the theme for the movie Batman(!), which begins C, D, E-flat, A-flat and G." It is "in two short movements: a slow fantasy on the opening motive followed by a reckless scherzo with a hip-hop interlude." It "ends with an impossibly high reprise of the opening material." Bonnie Thron, Principal Cello of the NC Symphony, brought a heart-felt intensity to her brilliant performance. This ought to be a standard repertory piece.
From Stookey's period as Composition Fellow with England's Hallé Orchestra came Anrheg Priodas (1994), for oboe, violin and cello, composed to celebrate the marriage of two members of an orchestra-based chamber music group, the Meirion Ensemble. The title means "Wedding Present" in Welsh. Its "four short sections explore a single motive: first it is introduced against the static backdrop of a high, persistently regular violin line. Second, it appears in a fast rhythmic setting -- with a host of warbling interruptions. Third, a calm, imitative texture allows the motive to develop melodically. Finally, two disparate motivic variants attempt to create a dialogue while a stubbornly declamatory chorus becomes increasingly insistent." The unusual blends and contrasts of color help give this greater interest than a mere occasional piece.
The evening's largest forces - four violins, viola, cello, doublebass, oboe, bassoon and two percussion players - were used in the last work, O (1994), for chamber orchestra. The composer aptly described it as "something of a concerto in that the oboe and bassoon play a prominent role throughout, culminating in a shared cadenza." This came off nicely in the performance. The work is an elaboration on a single idea first heard in the opening notes of the rich sounding double bass. The composer's notes stress the importance of "its rhythmic profile: the quick-slow, quick-slow of a fast waltz, or a heartbeat." This certainly contained a plethora of instrumental textures and color as well as variety of beat including what the composer described as "a swing groove." One section suggested the qualities of a chorale. The able "soloists" were Melanie Hoffner, oboe, and Bryan Fox, bassoon.
This was a rewarding program, very carefully selected and prepared by Gutter and his musicians. All the performances were fully professional in quality; no allowances needed to be made. My previous exposure to Stookey's works had been limited to those short "occasional pieces" that orchestras commission that allow them credit for support of living composers but that all to often quickly disappear from the repertory. They are too short to give a composer room to soar. Chamber music justly has the reputation of exposing a composer's soul. I found all the works intriguing and was wowed by the solo cello Sonatina, a real winner if I have ever heard one. How about one for that most neglected inner voice, the viola, sometime in the future?