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Idealism Meets Reality

June 17, 2008

On Friday evening, Old First Church featured the local debut of America’s newest chamber group devoted to promoting new music, New York’s Redshift quintet. The ensemble is especially idealistic in that it avoids big-name composers in favor of up-and-coming hopefuls. And this, while setting forth those intentions enthusiastically for every piece in sight: hook, line, and stinkers. Clarinetist Jeff Anderle serves as a kind of director, aiding and abetting violinists Emily Popham and Andie Springer, cellist Rose Bellini, and Irish pianist Isabelle O'Connell — fine, youthful musicians all.
The group's debut program offered seven short works, each by a different composer and each for a different combination of instruments. As far as I can tell, all were local premieres. Belinda Reynolds' Dust opened the proceedings , followed by Robert Rowe's Submarine (2004), James Holt's Trio (2003), and two sections of Paul Moravec's Tempest Fantasy (2002). Following intermission came Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy's Reservoir (2007), Evan Ziporyn's Tsmindao Ghmerto (1992), and Marc Mellits' Fruity Pebbles (2006). There were no encores.

The most stunningly original piece of the program turned out to be Holt's Trio for violin, clarinet, and piano. He used a soft-core atonal style in a lyrical way, but in fragmented textures, a tad resembling the music of Morton Feldman. (From me, that's a compliment.) Yet his dynamics ran the gamut from extremely soft to full force.

Pianist O'Connell opened with soft bits played inside the piano, directly onto the strings, and also produced some tricky pedal effects with seeming ease. Her polish and sense of proportion were invincible. Clarinetist Anderle and violinist Popham helped keep a singularly well balanced sonority, something not always achieved in a typical ensemble performance. This was a fine piece, handsomely presented.
After September 11
Reynolds' Dust was inspired by the sight of New York City following the 9/11 attack. San Francisco–based Reynolds created a gentle, pastoral elegy with her music, with only a duo of clarinet and cello. She created a mood a bit like that in the first movement of Copland's Clarinet Concerto. The effect was both reverential and of sustained loveliness.

Standing in extreme contrast was the fascinating, almost shamanistic effect of Ziporyn's Tsmindao Ghmerto for solo bass clarinet. Listeners may have found it hard to see and hear what they were experiencing. Ziporyn is himself a virtuoso clarinetist, "devoted to making the clarinet sound like something besides a clarinet," as Anderle observed. He surely accomplished that. His bass clarinet was making sounds like a ghoul in some deep cavern tormenting a traditional Georgian religious chant — the source of the work's title.

The means for these effects were striking. Anderle had to wear a kind of electronic choker tethered to speaker amplification to his right. While playing the instruments in his mouth, he had to "sing" (actually a strong hum) different music via the speaker. But wait, that was only two strands of sound. He was also producing a third via harmonic overtones, for what amounted to a three-voiced motet. And Anderle did it all, to the astonishment of the audience. In truth, the end result sounded like a lot of growling and roaring noises that were not exactly pleasant, but golly, what an impressive work. And what a knockout performance it was

Mellits' Fruity Pebbles consisted of eight brief movements for basic trio for violin, cello, and piano: Springer as violinist, plus Bellini and O'Connell. The total resembled a kind of divertimento that hinted at Prokofiev's various lightweight music for children. (The title refers to a bowl of varicolored little rocks.) The one surprise was that the composer chose to end his playful piece with a quiet epilogue.

The other three works struck me as so much sonic gobbledygook, things to be avoided in future. Rowe's Submarine, for violin and electronics, made an attempt to suggest underwater pictures. It consisted of a kind of rhapsodic violin cadenza over soft electronic drones, but none of it was done impressively, and none of it sounded particularly aquatic to my ear. We've had electronic music, or its sibling, tape music, for 50 years, either as an electronic solo or mixed with traditional instruments. Not a single such piece has found its way into repertoire status.
Technology's Day Is Done
About 35 years ago, I asked Krzysztof Penderecki why, considering his interest in unusual sonorities, he'd never done an electronic piece, and he answered, "If you want interesting new sounds, what you need is a large orchestra and, if possible, a chorus." It's time for the technology composers to face reality. It was a fad that is well past its sell date.

O'Connell, the most polished musician of the group, added Dennehy's composition for piano to the program as a gesture to her homeland; it was written specifically for her. It's old hat minimalism that repeats and reiterates itself through two sections. During the first, the two hands play chords in unison, and during the second they alternate. Rhythmic interest was zero. Reservoir suggested music that had been written with a rubber stamp. Ten minutes of that was nine too many.

But the real bomb of the program was Moravec's Tempest Fantasy movements, based on characters from Shakespeare's play: Prospero and then Caliban. The fact that this work won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for music left me agape. Why? Surely the contemporary music scene in New York can't be that impoverished. I stand amazed.

The piece turned out to be a perusal of corny cliches, and those poorly strung together. I heard not a single fresh idea. The performance involved violinist Popham, Anderle, cellist Bellini, and pianist O'Connell in a waste of time and programming space promoting music that, at its roots, is tenaciously insipid.

Anderle mentioned that Redshift was formed only a year ago. That may explain why, while individual performances were fine, a few problems remain to be worked out in terms of ensemble balance. His clarinet, for example, tended to overshadow his colleagues in dynamics. Ensemble playing is, after all, a team effort. It's not an occasion for individuality to stand out in other than solo passages. With time, the ensemble might adjust to that need, but it could be more discriminating when it comes to selecting music worthy of presentation.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.