Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fear No Folk Song

Fear No Music, an intrepid group of musicians who date to inject contemporary works into Portland’s musical consciousness, presented its first concert of the season on Sunday afternoon. The crowd inside The Old Church numbered around 75 or so, but everyone eagerly anticipated new sounds that most had probably never heard before.

The program, entitled, “Folk Song” started with Mathew Burtner’s “Mists,” a piece for computer generated noise and a “stone trio.” The electronic sounds made me think of a misty ocean and waves of water splashing on the shore, spraying everyone with a fine mist. The “stone trio” consisted of three players who held stones and smacked them next to microphones position at three stations around the audience. As the mist condensed it would cause droplets of water to randomly fall. (The stone trio consitsted of Inés Voglar, Phillip Patti, and Joel Bluestone.)

The piece had a meditative quality, but I’m not sure what it had to do with folk songs. Because it was drizzling rain outside, it felt at times as if we had brought the rain inside. Joël Belgique directed the timing of this piece by looking at something on a computer screen and another set of information written on paper. He would use his hands to signal the players at a certain junctures in the score. In a way, he was like a semaphore, and that gave this tranquil piece a bit of suspense.

In any case, “Mists” segued nicely to the next piece entitled “Kuyas” by Harry Somers, a Canadian composer who used a Canadian Amateur Hockey Association scholarship to study composition with Darius Milhaud in Paris (from 1949 to 1950).

“Kuyas” consists of texts taken from an Indian tribe in British Columbia. This music lamented the life of hunting and a way of life that this tribe had to give up. Soprano Janice Johnson sang ardently and filled the room with anguish. Some of the sounds she made mimicked the howl of a wolf. Flutist Molly Barth and percussionists Patti and Bluestone added to the plaintive atmosphere with their accompaniment.

Next came Reza Vali's "Folk Songs Set No. 11b" for string quartet in two movements: Lament and Folk Dance. Vali is from Iran and now teaches music at Carnegie Mellon University. His Lament was very heartrending. Cellist Adam Esbensen played outstandingly. The cello part is extremely emotive and technically difficult, requiring the soloist to negotiate a minefield of leaps and filigree. Esbensen wrung out every last drop with artistry, connecting us with a wail of despair and regret. I thought that if the concert ended right here, I was satisfied. I had truth and beauty even if it's a sad truth and beauty. Well, the second movement, Folk Dance, moved everyone ahead with rhythmic drive that reminded me of a barn dance. Violinists Erin Furbee and Inés Voglar, and violist Belgique teamed up with Esbensen to get our toes tapping again.

The FNM string quartet (Furbee, Voglar, Belgique, and Esbensen) followed this piece with four excerpts from Adam's "John's Book of Alleged Dances." The four excerpts were "Judah to Ocean," "Dogjam," "Habanera," and "Toot Nipple." I thought the recorded percussion track overwhelmed the strings in the "Habanera," especially when they performed the pizzicati passages. I enjoyed the singsong style of "Judah to Ocean" and the rock and roll undercurrent of "Dogjam," and though they are brief dances I wanted to hear more.

The last work on the program was Luciano Berio's "Folk Songs" in the version that he set for voice and seven instruments. Janice Johnson expressed the eleven different songs wonderfully. She easily negotiated the eight different languages/dialects that Berio used in this piece. It always strikes me how fierce and almost angry the Sicilian song "A la femminisca" ("May the Lord Send Fine Weather...") sounds every time I hear it, and the "Azerbaijani Love Song" was full of joy.

Berio wrote a lot of unusual instrumentation for these songs. I loved how "I wonder as I wander" ended with flute and clarinet making a melancholy statement (played superbly by Barth and clarinetist Todd Kuhns). The ensemble (Barth, Kuhns, Belgique, Esbensen, Bluestone, Patti, and harpist Jennifer Craig) played at a very high level, but, with only seven instruments, the overall sound was very spare when compared to the full orchestra version that I heard the Oregon Symphony do a month or so ago.

Aside: Janice Johnson and Joel Bluestone wore identical-looking footbraces, and it made me wonder if they were snowboarding at the same time or what?

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