Monday, September 22, 2008

Free Marz String Trio lights musical birthday candles

The Free Marz String Trio concert on Friday evening at the Community Music Center performed music that celebrated the birthday anniversaries of several composers who have had a profound affect upon contemporary music: Olivier Messiaen, Witold Lutoslawski, Henryk Gorecki, and Krzysztof Penderecki. The performance included premieres for string trios, pieces for two violas, a work for two violins, plus a solo for cello. For good measure and a dash of piquant humor, the concert also featured a dramatic recitation from Elais Canetti’s “Earwitness” in celebration of Herbert von Karajan, who would’ve turned 100 this year, if he were still alive.

The concert began with the string trio premieres by Fabian Watkinson, Thomas Daniel Schlee, and Bob Priest, all of whom were students of Messiaen thirty years ago. A fourth student from that class, George Benjamin, was unable to submit a string trio, but Priest (who organized this concert) included Benjamin’s piece for two violas. Taken together, these works were tributes to birthday of Messiaen, who was born in 1908. Members of the trio ensemble were violinist Ines Voglar, Viola Joel Belgique, and cellist Justin Kagan.

The three premieres were all short pieces – each about three minutes in length – so it seemed that we got just a glimpse at their temperament, but not much beyond that. Watkinson’s “Le Tombeau de Messiaen” came out swinging with a combination of strident, spiky sounds. It all gradually melted away, but left me wanting to hear some more.

Schlee’s “Invocation” was quiet and contemplative, interlaced with pauses, and close-knit chords. The violin part, played evocatively by Voglar, seemed to slide around in search of a landing place, which was found more or less at the end of the piece.

“Smile” by Bob Priest also featured close-knit chords amongst the ensemble, but it all broke into expressions for each instrument. The ultra high part for the violin was wonderfully juxtaposed with a subterranean sound from the cello (played by Justin Kagan). There was a tenderness in the performance that was very heartening. I wanted to hear more of this piece, because it seemed to be going somewhere really interesting.

Benjamin’s “Viola, Viola” for two violas (Belgique and Charles Noble) got off to a rough start, which seemed to frame the fighting style of this music. That is, jarring, angry dissonance of this piece suggested two sides that were sparring most of the time. At one point the aggressive sounds became more playful, and the end of the piece featured a lot of angry plucking from both sides. I’m not sure if one or the other got the upper hand, though.

The second half of the program began with Lutoslawski's "Sacher Variation" for solo cello, which he wrote in 1975. This short work, played by Kagan, started very forcefully yet gradually mellowed until it ended quietly. It's music was intriguing, and I would've enjoyed hearing it again. (Note: Lutoslawski would have been 95 years old this year.)

Next came Gorecki's Adagio Sostenuto and Andante Con Moto from his Sonata, op. 10 for two violins (1957). For this work, Voglar teamed up with Jun Iwasaki, and they performed this piece with a very high sense of precision and passion. The piece began with forceful, matched notes, but that dissolved into an interesting conversation between the two violins. Each seemly commenting or complimenting on the sound of the other. The legato-like sections were soothing, but I liked the angry pizzicato sections as well. The fierce commitment of both artists to this music was inspiring, and Iwasaki even shredded some horsehair from his bow. (Incidentally, Gorecki is 75 years old.)

To lighten up the mood, Jean Sherrard, a Seattle-based actor, gave wonderful performance of "The Maestroso," which is an essay from Canetti's "Earwitness." Canetti's words humorously speared the egos of orchestra conductors who have achieved superstardom. I loved it when Sherrard talked about how the conductor's legs "are like columns" and that he "strides upon his columns." Whereever the conductor stopped became a "temple" where "worshippers" would gather and "rack their brains" about the the most minute things that a conductor would do. Even his "sighs" carried meaning.

Sherrard's performance was done in honor of Karajan, and that was most fitting. I once saw Karajan conduct Brahm's "German Requiem" in Vienna, Austria (a Vienna Philharmonic ausserordentiche concert) and that was the first time that I had seen 50-year-old men yelling at the top of their voices and clapping in adulation when Karajan came out on the stage of the Musik Verein before the performance even began. And these worshippers wouldn't stop until Karajan raised his baton to begin the music. It was nuts.

The Free Marz String Trio concert ended with Penderecki's String Trio, which he wrote in 1990 and 1991. Penderecki turned 75 this year.) This was a very committed and exiciting performance by Voglar, Belgique, and Kagan. The music contained all sorts of moods from humorous to somber and had a wicked fugue-like section and fierce, rhythmic drive. It was a gem of a piece that this trio polished with panache. Bravo!

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