Thursday, July 12, 2018

Andy Akiho brings the magic back to Chamber Music Northwest's Summer Festival

Andy Akiho
Returning composer/performer Andy Akiho and friends gave a memorable concert on Wednesday July 11 at the Alberta Rose Theater, as part of CMNW's Summer Festival. Akiho's reputation (and audience) have grown over the years, as the packed house that night proved.

Joining Akiho, who performed several works on his primary instrument the steel pan, were Ian David Rosenbaum on marimba, Tara Helen O'Connor on flute, Jennifer Frautschi on violin, and the members of the Dover Quartet, violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, cellist Camden Shaw and violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt.

The decision to mic all the instruments at first was puzzling; in the opening work the flute came off as excessively shrill at parts, but balance issues were fine and did not favor one instrument over another, and it was clearly what the composer had in mind so while initially off-putting, through the course of the concert his choice bore fruit.

The opening piece was the world premiere of the flute/marimba instrument set for -intuition) (Expectation, the original having been written for trumpet/marimba. O'Connor joined Rosenbaum for this syncopated, jazzy work, set over a subtly shifting ostinato on the marimba. There were nice effects from the flute, chuffing and aspirating and exaggerated flutter tonguing. A difficult piece to approach but it sort of grew on you...

Karakurenai was next, with Akiho and Rosenbaum, and was a work for prepared steel pan featuring chop sticks, poster tack and other items according to Akiho. Based around a rigid, lengthy syncopation, this shorter work had a repetitive feel that could be meditative in the right circumstances.

Deciduous, featuring Akiho and Frautschi, came third. The opening highlighted the strangely mellifluous, odd almost tonal-shifting attack and decay from the steel pan. Radically shifting moods, from frenetic and harried to placid and thoughtful took place instantaneously, leaving the listener never quite sure of anything except where they were at at the moment. A series of harmonic shrieks from the violin over a whispering accompaniment from the pan was followed by an odd, chaotic chase. Some of the most violent and painful-sounding pizzicato I've ever heard--almost diabolical--and then a beautiful soliloquy from the pan, a joyous air and a pentatonic fantasy...this was a fantastic and engaging piece.

21, a piece Akiho and Rosenbaum performed here before, left an impression that perhaps for Akiho, often (but certainly not always,) the rhythm is the mistress, and varying pitches and timbres, melodies and instruments, exist merely to service it.

Ian David Rosenbaum
The second half consisted entirely of the LIgNEouS Suite, a work some of whose movements were commissioned by different groups, with the fifth and final movement being commissioned by the Dover Quartet, who performed it along with Rosenbaum. This performance was its west coast premier.

It opened with sul ponticello scritching from the strings, and a repeating pattern over a wild and intense performance on the marimba. Wailing away with mallet shafts bereft of their yarn heads, Rosenbaum performed incredibly rapid arpeggios and scale passages with alacrity, now raking the sticks across the marimba tubes in a cacophonous glissando, followed by hard, alarmingly loud snaps from a giant rubber band. The strings sang an unlovely but fascinating accompaniment. This and other movements may not have been a marimba concerto exactly, but they came close.

The second movement began with a ghostly suppuration from the strings over a murmuring marimba, struck with very soft heads that resulted in dissonant sostenutos as the notes hung in the air long after being struck. In this and in earlier pieces, unisons occured amongst the instruments that provided a fascinating sonic color due to the disparity amongst them.

Later in the work came more startling effects from the marimba, alternatively purposely assaultive and mysteriously otherworldly. Gloriously loud, stark chords came from the strings, and strange sawing sounds, wails, slaps and knocks on the body and fingerboards of instruments. Like all of his works, this exhibited exhuberant play with the world of sounds.

Two things struck me most about this concert: first would be Rosenbaum's virtuosity on his instrument. As a percussionist I have played the marimba a number of times, so have some small inkling of the challenges this instrument presents. I have never heard it played, nor imagined it could be played, the way Rosenbaum plays it. Simply breathtaking-and here give some credit to the composer-but a lesser performer could not have attempted nor even dreamed of giving the kind of performance Rosenbaum did. It was absolutely astounding, the most technically astute and artistically intuitive kind of exhibition anyone could hope for from a true virtuoso. Being somewhat biased toward percussionists, I have often felt the they are sometimes given shorter shrift than they deserve in the world of classical/art music. Let anyone who feels that way hear a performance like this. Enough said.

Another thing is the simple joy of not only hearing something you have never heard before, but maybe even hearing something that is unlike anything you have heard before. This is the great reward that exists for those who seek out new music, which is perhaps the foremost of so many reasons I always go to hear Andy Akiho when he is in town.

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