You never know when there is a professional reviewer (and I guess I can call myself that) in the house when you play a concert in a "remote" location. This particular concert was within walking distance from my downstate Illinois home, but was a three and a half hour drive south for this Chicago-based ensemble that specializes in playing new music. The concert was this ensemble's final performance of the season of this program, so I feel it my duty (and my pleasure) to write about it here.
The program was an unusual mix of very new music: two world premieres and one American premiere, a rarely-played chestnut from the 1960s, and a big 19th-century symphony played by a strong and mighty chamber-sized orchestra. The concert was free, the weather was lousy, and the audience was a nice mixture of university students, mature retired people, and university faculty.
Jonathon Kirk's Lost Bird Environment is a piece for string quartet (violin, viola, cello, and bass) and electronics. The basic pitch material is derived from the song of an extinct Hawaiian bird, and the string sounds are somehow (as if by magic) recycled as they are being played, and turned into a kind of second ensemble. It is impossible to really separate the electronic sounds from the natural sounds, and that, for me, is what gives the piece its austere beauty.
Sarah J. Ritch's Reinvention 1 is a classic miniminalist work that takes fragments from the Bach Goldberg Variations and divides the rendered material, among a handful of musicians, with some lyrical lines given to the oboe. Equally minimalist, but differently organized, is Carmel Raz's Snake, which was given its American premiere.
After all this minimalism came the Ligeti Cello Concerto, performed by cellist Victoria Bass. She had the unusual ability to understand and project the dramatic (and often introspective and extremely quiet) solo line in such a profound way that even a novice to new music (and there were many in the audience) could admire and feel the substance of the piece. Written in the middle 1960s, this is a work that has stunning orchestration for the winds and brass, and highly atypical writing for the small string section, as well as the soloist, who ends the piece with a cadenza that eventually dispenses with the bow and with sound altogether, leaving only movement. It was played in the spirit of a chamber work, where every note and every relationship is of utmost importance. It was really thrilling to hear doubling at the octave of highly atonal material being played at high speeds with such high accuracy. The "keep the audience on the edge of their seats" quality of the performance reflected a great deal of careful preparation, and a great deal of musical understanding from both the ensemble and its very fine conductor, Robert Katkov-Trevino.
The program ended with a performance of the Second Symphony of Robert Schumann. After the dramatic and unorthodox impact of the Ligeti, this big 19th-century Symphony seemed oddly common-practice. This symphony, with its highly-organized first movement, its thrilling Scherzo (played by a four-person first violin section that had the sound of a section twice its size), its sometimes Bachian and sometimes Schubertian Adagio (with absolutely gorgeous oboe solos played by Grace Hong), and its grand final movement, sounded perfectly balanced with a small string section consisting of only a single double bass, two cellos, three violas, three second violins, and four first violins.
It was an unusual pleasure to hear such a fine concert. I feel like I owe this ensemble my personal thanks. I am pretty sure that the rest of the people in the audience here in Charleston, Illinois feel the same way.