Monday, February 16, 2015

“Humble River” flows over melodic Mozart to spare and angular Mackey in Third Angle concert

Photo credit: Sarah Tiedemann
Musicologists and critics often wonder what music or composer may have inspired another piece of music or composer. With Steven Mackey’s “Humble River” there is no question because Mackey's piece openly uses movements from Mozart’s flute quartets as a reference point. That is, “Humble River” is a flute quartet with music by Mozart and Mackey. To clarify this a little further, except for the Prelude that Mackey wrote to introduce “Humble River,” a movement from one of Mozart’s flute quartet is followed by a movement by Mackey, and this continues for four movements (or parts). I heard this unique construct, played with the utmost integrity by The Third Angle New Music Ensemble on Friday evening (February 13) in the intimate confines of Zoomtopia, and I came away from the hour-long expierence with the feeling that Mackey’s inventions had a more of an intellectual appeal than an emotional one, and contrasted with the comfort-food-like appeal of Mozart’s music pretty well.

The program notes explained that in “Humble River, Mackey’s “approach was to write a single, continuous piece, which would flow through the evening: a ‘river’ with Mozart ‘islands.’” Also, the program notes explain that while Mackey’s music doesn’t contain any direct quotes from Mozart’s flute quartets, he does made idiosyncratic and abstract references to Mozart’s music.

If I understood what was going on, it seemed that the flow of Mozart’s music (from the four movements from the four flute quartets) started out pleasantly with an elegant and refined style, and ended up in a fast-moving current. Mackey’s music started out as a few droplets and a very faint, whistling wind. The droplets became very angular, but together they seemed to create a trickle and gradually gathered to form rivulets and a stream that made its way past rocks and boulders, tree roots and hard shoulders of clay, and by the end of the piece, the flow of sound became a rollicking river – Tumble River, I suppose.

I realize that my interpretation is not in line with Mackey’s program notes about “broken toys.” But if I used that metaphor, then in the last movement, he was throwing toys all over the place. Okay, well maybe that is what it was all about.

Much of the angular and spare sounds were created by violinist Ron Blessinger (who is also the artistic director of Third Angle) and violist Charles Noble. Cellist Marilyn de Oliverira added depth to the undertaking and flutist Zachariah Galatis contributed with a wide variety of sounds, such as whistling, breathy tones, and fluttering tones.

The final section was very rolling, slightly jazzy at times, with a number of glissando-like passages for all of the strings. Galatis punctuated it with some piercing notes and breathy blasts. I felt a little sorry for anyone who sat in the front row, because they got nailed with several shrieking tones.

After the concert, I took a look at Mackey’s flute score and his score for the violin. Many of the notes were written extremely high – in the stratospheric range. I am not sure how the musicians figured it out. It looked absolutely impossible.

It was obvious that each member of the quartet was carefully listening to each other. Blessinger and Noble were attentive to each others playing, especially during passages that featured only the two of them. It seemed, overall, a Herculean effort, and the musicians left it all on the stage floor.
Photo credit: Sarah Tiedemann

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