Sunday, July 16, 2017

New music for violin celebrated in Chamber Music Northwest's New@Noon concert

Eugene Drucker and Gloria Chien in action
Since its inaugural concert two years ago, Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon series with its emphasis on contemporary works has been steadily gaining traction. Lincoln Recital Hall was around three-quarters full for the performance that I attended on Friday, July 7th, which featured pieces by Kaija Saariaho, Augusta Reed Thomas, Gabriella Smith, CMNW’s protégé composer, Philip Setzer, and Eugene Drucker (the latter two are well-known members of the Emerson String Quartet).

Smith’s piece “tapin~ 517/tapout~” was the one on the program that I found most intriguing. Based on her dabbling with a software program used for music, Smith wrote an acoustical piece for an ensemble of five violinists so that the first violinist triggered effects from the four violinists. If I understood her introductory explanation correctly, 517 refers to the number of milliseconds after she tapped into the program before taping out again. In “tapin~ 517/tapout~” Smith used that extremely short distance as a springboard for an arresting piece that ricocheted and reverberated around the violinists. For this world premiere performance, Rebecca Anderson expertly served up volleys as the trigger, and her comrades – Bella Hristova, Soovin Kim Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and Arnaud Sussmann – created a beguiling array of sounds. The variety of overtones alone was intoxicating.

The other works on the program were somber works of an elegiac nature. Saariaho’s “Nocturne” was written in 1994 for solo violin in response to the death of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. Before playing the piece, violinist Setzer explained that it would have some strange sounds of someone who struggled in sleep before dying, and indeed, the raspy tones (sometime two different ones at the same time), wiry and tearing effecting did evoke the image of a person struggling with each breath.

Setzer’s “Elegy for Violin and Piano” (1976, revised 2000) offered lots of contrasting extremes with one instrument in its lowest register while the other was at its highest. In the hands of violinist Setzer and pianist Gloria Chien, the piece explored the emotion of loss and grief before ending with a sense of grace.

Augusta Read Thomas wrote “Incantation” in 1995 to honor a friend who was dying of cancer. Played by Drucker, the piece (about five minutes in length) was somber and reflective and finished with an air unresolvedness – as if life were intended to go on elsewhere.

“But Then Begins a Journey in My Head” (2014) by Drucker, drew from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with nine short movements. Performed by Drucker and Chien, the piece ran the gamut from bold and striking to gloomy and moody and introspective. For example, “Lust” (Sonnet 129) matched up with a tempestuous spirit while A Journey in my Head” (Sonnet 27) was slow and contemplative. Overall, it was a well-paced piece and Chien seemed an ideal accompanist.

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