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Reviewing contemporary music is hard to do at a first hearing. With no template to channel one's attention and perceptions, the odds are against the critic getting it right, as one can read in the Lexicon of Musical Invective. Masterpieces have been dismissed out of hand and the trite anointed before vanishing into history's dustbin.
Both faculty and students were performers in a late-afternoon concert, given April 3 in the Organ Recital Hall of UNCG's impressive new School of Music. Hill Hall regulars would be envious of the large, adjacent parking deck. Pieces ran the gamut from solos to those involving a small chamber orchestra. The sight of an array of percussion instruments sent this critic to the back bench of this small silo-like hall (but not as a member of the loyal opposition). The large new Andover Organ dominates the hall center stage allowing full view of an organist's every move. The walls are predominately convex sections of coarse red bricks. For the first half of the concert, thick padded sonic curtains, like wrestling mats, were lowered along the top fifth of the hall to control reverberation. They were retracted at intermission.
The concert was a retrospective of the music of composers Stacy Garrop (b.1969) and William Davis (b. 1949). Garrop (D.M., Indiana University, 2000) is known for a dramatic style. She was a finalist for the 2001 Rome Prize (pace Berlioz and Nadia Boulanger) and has attended residences at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor in Composition at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Bassoonist William Davis earned his Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees at the University of Kansas and his D.M.A. at the Eastman School of Music. He has been a faculty member at the University of Georgia School of Music since 1981.
Both composers were present as part of a short intensive residency. Garrop's cutting-edge music was more challenging than Davis's, but I would welcome the chance to wrestle with her pieces a second time. Extremes of instrumental ranges and dynamics and unusual playing techniques were just part of my first impressions. The first and third pieces played had their origin in what the composer described as a 24-hour compositional exam. Her assignment was to set a text to music. She chose Anne Sexton's poem "Seven Times," wherein "the speaker longs for release from life [and], upon dying, ...is surprised to find a quiet, peaceful place." Garrop liked the results so much that, unsure of being able to obtain the rights to use the text, she used it in a piano trio, tying it in with reactions to the plight of the character Seven of Nine, from her favorite TV program, Startrek Voyager. Unusual sound textures characterized "Seven," with Andrew Willis reaching far under the piano lid to pat the low strings with the flat of his hand as violinist John Fadial created an eerie, breathy "pp" tone by bowing across the bridge. Christopher Hutton soon joined the mix with pizzicato cello notes. Garrop explained that the work is in two halves, the first very machine-like and the second, more lyrical. Along the way, there were sections in which the back of the violin bow was used against the strings plus exploited high violin positions, bowings that were harsh rasps, mechanical piano rhythms, and hand-plucked piano strings. This background made the fleeting lyrical half seem almost rhapsodic. Toward the end, the eerie gasp of the bowed violin bridge returned as the pulsing rhythm died out. Remnants of Nine was composed for a chamber ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano (unidentified in the program) and percussion. The student players were conducted by Richard Earl Cook. Wide dynamic ranges, high tessiture in both strings and woodwinds and diverse percussion color were just some of the features. A melodic line was more hinted at than explicit. Garrop hopes to complete her triptych someday. In between these two, we were treated to the world premiere of her aptly-named "Tantrum," for alto saxophone and piano, played by Steven Stusek and Elisabeth Loparitis, respectively. Again there was a wide dynamic range, extremes of the instruments' ranges, etc.
The second half was dominated by composer William Davis's slightly less severe works. I noted with interest that organist Jolene Davis, soloist for Escapades (1997) and the composer's spouse, had studied organ with James Moeser (UNC-Chapel Hill's Chancellor), among others. In three movements (fast, slow and fast), the score exploited the organist's ability to play both extremes of the pedals simultaneously as well as giving her a full three-keyboard workout. Not the least striking aspect of the Andover organ was the spinning of a decorative metallic starburst as the chimes were played. Davis's Fantasy and Presto for Two Bassoons (1986) transcended mere technical exercise. The very able composer was joined by Michael Burns for a tour de force of about every possible combination of sounds that two bassoons could do legally. The program notes drew attention to "special effects, including muffled timbres, quarter tones, and multiphonics." The Presto, with unbelievable fast tonguing effects and scalar passages, was spectacular.
The most immediately appealing work on the program was Davis' witty piece of local University of Georgia color, Of the Georgia Night Wind's Telling (1999), for woodwind quartet and strings. Conductor Robert Gutter directed the enthusiastic student ensemble. The first half, "On North Campus," opened with pizzicato violins, held cello notes and droning basses, soon enhanced by tone colors from the woodwinds. This evoked the University's original campus on a Hill above the Oconee River and suggested, slightly, Ives' The Housatonic at Stockbridge . The wit in the second half, "The Iron Horse," refers to a sculpture of the same name by Abbott Patterson that was so disliked by locals that it was constantly defaced, forcing it to be removed. According to the program notes, "the musical setting of this movement portrays the tumult (as well as the fanciful 'ride' of the Iron Horse) through continuous, unrelenting sixteenth notes in the strings along with technical work in the woodwind solo parts." I thought I heard a "neighing" in the violins among other delights such as rich color resulting from blending woodwinds and strings.
A non-musical observation evoked memories of Charles Schultz's cartoon Peanuts. As the two bassists marched between the first rows to set up, between them was a very young boy carrying a "security" sweater and sucking his thumb. He sat on the first bench as close as possible to one of the bassists (an older brother or maybe his father). At one point he was almost hugging the bass with his free arm. A future Schroder? 'Twas a delightful afternoon on the edge.