Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review: Fear No Music lives up to its name - again!

The Fear No Music ensemble gave its third concert, appropriately titled “ear courage,” on Sunday evening at The Old Church. The concert reached both ends of the spectrum in terms of volume with some really loud and almost ear-splitting pieces and others that had super pianissimo passages. All of the works on the program created unusual sonic dimensions, and I felt that my ears were stretched after the concert ended.

This concert featured guest artists Jason Hardink, Molly Barth, and Kevin Schempf. Hardink is the principal symphony keyboard/opera rehearsal accompanist with the Utah Symphony and Opera. Molly Barth won the 2008 Grammy award for Best Chamber Music Performance at part of the ensemble eighth blackbird and now teaches at Willamette University and plays principal flute with the Salem Chamber Orchestra. Kevin Schempf is solo clarinetist with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and bass clarinetist with the Toledo Symphony.

The concert began with guest pianist Hardink playing Thomas Osborne’s “And the waves sing because they are moving.” This piece was written in 2004 by Osborne for Hardink, so we probably heard one of the most definitive performances of this work, which did indeed evoke the sound of waves rolling up and down out in the ocean or crashing upon the seashore.

The piece uses the dampening of some to create passages in which stubby tones splashed on top of a big wash of sound. Other sections featured a terrific rhythmic drive, and I could easily imagine the crashing of waves towards the end of the piece when Hardink pounded on a series of bass notes to create a deafening roar and lots of overtones.

The next piece, Joan Tower’s “Très Lent” (Hommage à Messiaen) took us in an entirely different direction by setting out in a plaintive, delicate direction. Fear No Music’s cellist Adam Esbensen and pianist Hardink were nicely underway when a blast of hailstone hammered the side of The Old Church, temporarily disturbing the mood. Still, Esbensen and Hardink were able to explore the melancholy themes and regain the attention of the audience with very expressive playing.

One of the most intriguing pieces on the program was Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Morte Tamburo” for flute. Molly Barth made all sorts of unusual sound effects that made me think of droplets of water or someone walking on tiptoe. She used the amplification really well and with short blasts of sound could transform the flute into a percussive instrument, mesmerizing everyone in the process.

Frederic Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” performed by Hardink, used crunchy, closely hewn tonal patterns and chords to convey the unrelenting grinding of cotton mill machines. It was fascinating to watch Hardink’s right arm swing link a hinge over the keyboard while he created the interlocking sounds. These tone clusters gradually gave way to a rolling blues rhythm and later transitioned into a jazzy, ragtime theme that became fairly wild. Towards the end of piece, Hardink crashed elbows and forearms on the keyboard as the sound of the factory returned and brought everything to a close.

Next came “Gravitations,” a very quiet and almost meditative number for clarinet that was written by Michael Johnson (who was also present in the audience). Clarinetist Kevin Schempf created a variety of sounds, many of which were soft or extremely soft. Yet this music, in general, struck me as a cerebral exercise, because it was devoid of any narrative and almost all emotion.

Much in the same vein was Elliott Carter’s “90+,” which he wrote in 1994 to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of composer Goffredo Petrassi. Performed by Hardink, this work contains a lot of seemingly random and sporadic notes. A little blur of tone at the end added an air of mystery, but the whole piece spoke more to the brain than to the heart.

Like a breath of fresh air came “Four Seasonal Interludes” by David Schiff, who was present in the audience. Schiff took themes from his song cycle “All About Love” and recast them as a suite for violin, cello, flue, and clarinet. In this performance, Fear No Music artistic director and violinist Inés Voglar teamed up with Esbensen, Barth, and Schempf to fashion a fanciful look at the four seasons.

I recall that Spring was announced with a perky theme by the flute and that this theme was nicely taken up by the violin and gradually mixed into the entire ensemble. Summer featured a gracious lyric passage by the clarinet, a languid theme from the flute, and supporting commentary by the violin and cello. A swirl of notes by the violin, flute, and clarinet plus the pizzicato in the cello gave me the impression of a leafy, wind-driven scene for the Fall movement. Winter was introspective and featured short violin and cello duet that became a lovely and tender lullaby for the ensemble.

The concert concluded with Jason Eckhardt’s “A Glimpse Retraced” for piano, clarinet, flute, violin, and cello. This was a real barnburner of a piece, because it contained lots of percussive notes for the piano and outbursts from all of the other instruments. Virtuosic playing in the upper register of the violin by Voglar was followed by ear-piercing blasts by the flute. Impressive also was a wild sequence of seemingly random notes on the piano and an extended cadenza on the piano in which Hardink, at one point playing forcefully at extreme opposite ends of the keyboard at the same time, gave the Steinway a thorough thrashing the likes of which I had never seen before.

Eckhardt sat just to my right and bounded up to the front of the stage to thank the players. Kudos to Hardink for his physical stamina in all of the demanding pieces and to the audience for withstanding the sheer roar of the final number. Sometimes, Fear No Music applies to the those who listen as well as those who perform.

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