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Decoda Demonstrates How Live Classical Music Can Matter

December 3, 2018

Stanford Live

Decoda, a New-York based Western art music collective, seems sensitive to the conundrum of live performances of Western classical music today. With so many excellent recordings readily available and cheap playback technology of adequate to excellent quality, what are the motivations for showing up a live performance? Last night at Stanford’s underground Bing Concert Hall Studio, Decoda’s “Lifecircus” program aimed to attract an audience with music you can’t easily hear elsewhere, unique relationships between performers and compositions, and storytelling illuminating these relationships.

In the midst of these thoughtful program elements, the most affecting thing about the concert was the ensemble’s performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet, Opus 39. The piece is wonderfully askew, with audible circus elements twisted just enough to be uncomfortable and intriguing. The instrumentation itself is unusual: oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass. Prokofiev’s blending of timbres and assignment of lines is breathtaking. As one of the performers suggested, the ensemble is a mini-orchestra, but never leaving a desire for larger forces. Each of the six movements offered new oddities and surprises and the performers’ long history with the piece afforded a luminous and direct performance.

Franz Schubert’s song Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, in an arrangement by Decoda violinist Owen Dalby, was the earliest-written composition on the program. The piece’s lyrical magic brought the concert to a warm embrace of a close and highlighted the impeccable playing of the woodwind players: Alicia N. Lee on clarinet and James Austin Smith on oboe. Both of them were on 100 percent of the time. At the end of the Schubert they playfully charged runs together with perfect intonation and timing, all wrapped in a shroud of ease. Earlier in the program, Smith brought this same wholeness to his performances of three selections from Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, which were interspersed in the first part of the program.

But listeners had to wait for these highlights. Despite Smith’s flawless performance of the Britten pieces, I can take them or leave them as compositions. They strike me as a sort of book of Debussy preludes for oboe, a tough act for a melodic instrument with its timbral proclivities. The inclusion of two compositions by Samuel Barber (Excursions and Nuvoletta) left me far more bewildered. Though carefully and effectively arranged, they fall flat as compositions. The four movements of Excursions feel like awkwardly straightjacketed imitations at worst and like second-rate Copland at their best moments.  While historically interesting, why push these pieces on audiences today?

Personal connections supported putting pieces by double bassist and composer Evan Premo on the program: a song cycle written for himself and his wife, soprano Mary Bonhag and a composition written for Owen Dalby and his wife, violist Meena Bhasin. While the song cycle offered poignant moments and interesting musical ideas, the other composition, though clearly a beautiful and meaningful wedding gift, did not feel at home on stage. The story line with these pieces was familial, and that is often a mixed bag.

The evening left me with a desire to experience more of Decoda’s thoughtful programming. It seems that they are trying out new, hybrid concepts for meaningful live performances and they clearly have much to offer. As with any experiment, there’s no guarantee that everything works. But with a foundation of beautiful playing and thoughtful intentions, I recommend investigating the next iterations of the experiment.

Tysen Dauer studies musicology at Stanford University. His current research focuses on the reception history of early American minimalism.