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For all its faults – including the difficulty some have in just getting there – the Nelson Music Room, in the East Duke Building, is one of the better concert venues – train, busses, and all. It was there that some outstanding Duke faculty artists bade farewell to Mellon Artist-in-Residence Sergio Roberto de Oliveira, a remarkable composer from Brazil, whose work at Duke this semester included classes, lectures, and some composing. His background includes classical training and work in both the classical and pop worlds. He’s young, he’s emotional, and he’s superbly gifted, based on this single exposure to his music. The concert was presented under the auspices of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. The composer’s presence here was facilitated by Duke Music Librarian Tom Moore, who met and worked with him in Brazil.
‘Twas all music on a small scale, in this venue, but it was some of the most richly varied work heard in a long time. The fact that this program was entirely devoted to the music of one creator helped underscore the similarities and the differences, too. Of course there were some folk elements, as anyone who knows and admires the music of, say, Villa Lobos, might have expected. But when all was said – there was a good bit of introductory talking by the composer – and done – there were five works or parts thereof, played by a total of seven musicians – the lingering impression is of a strong voice in music, a man who has accomplished much already and of whom much more may justifiably be expected. The down side of all this was that this concert was part of his leave-taking. Here’s hoping he’ll be back someday, with a case of new scores for us to hear at Duke.
In the meanwhile, things got underway with five little pieces for solo flute, played by Tom Moore (who, let the record show, moonlights as a critic for CVNC). He is a heckuva flutist, for sure, and these pieces, part of set of 12 Bagatelles (dedicated to Moore), showed both Moore and the composer to great advantage. Quite in a different realm was “Atonas,” a work for solo piano, played by Jane Hawkins, who has the reputation of being able to play anything. This was commissioned to be performed after Alban Berg’s famous Sonata, so it is, as the title says, atonal, but the spirit of the earlier work is imbued in the pages of the later one, and Hawkins gave an exhilarating reading of it. (I suppose it would have helped if the Berg had been played, too, and I’ll concede that it was beneficial to have been familiar with that model while the newer work unfolded.) This performance marked its US premiere.
Susan Fancher is one of the reigning wonders of the saxophone, and it was good to hear her play a short solo and a somewhat more complex duo, with Hawkins. The solo was a new arrangement of a three-movement Fantasia, originally for flute, done for Fancher while the composer was in Durham; the duo, titled “Ice,” was composed here for her, and enjoyed its world premiere on this occasion. The title, Oliveira explained, related to a cube of ice, melting. There was some falling away of sound in the piece, but mostly its inventiveness seemed uplifting, inspired, and inspiring. There is much beauty in the score, and it was realized handsomely by the two performers.
The grand finale was the Brazilian Quartet No. 2, dedicated to and premiered on this occasion by the Ciompi Quartet, an ensemble that – like Hawkins – seems to be able to play just about anything – and particularly relishes new music. This is not a “radical” piece but rather one that, to this listener, suggested some of the aforementioned Villa-Lobos’ best writing for string ensembles, but with quite remarkable differentiation among the four parts, differentiation that resulted in much greater transparency and clarity in the texture than some of V-L’s scores. Like the other works on the program, this quartet is relatively simple, seemingly folk-influenced, and short, spanning in its several sections a mere ten minutes or so. The time passed like wind during the incisive playing, and indeed the whole concert seemed to end too soon – even with all the intros, it was over in little more than an hour.
In retrospect, it’s a great pity that a program of Oliveira’s music, played by these or comparable artists, wasn’t staged when he landed here, so there could have been more noise, locally, about his amazing talents. Next time!