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A small but dedicated bunch were present at Hill Hall for a program of new music from the Universities of North Carolina and South Carolina, with composers Allen Anderson and Stephen Anderson of UNC Chapel Hill hosting John Fitz Rogers of USC. I had heard the music of Rogers (b. 1963) at his extremely thorough and well-designed website, and was happy to be able to get to know his works in concert. He can boast an impressive CV, having studied at Cornell, Yale and Oberlin with such names as Steven Stucky, Roberto Sierra, Martin Bresnick, and Jacob Druckman.
The program was to have begun with Rogers’ duo "Release" (alto sax, marimba), but was cancelled due to illness. In the event, we heard "Ad Pacem," a fairly brief and direct work for cello choir, written to mark the passing of Mstislav Rostropovich. The work is masterful, beautiful, direct and simple in its harmonic language, but original and far from cliché. The richness of the massed cellos recalled Dvořák at times, his “American” sound which pointed forward to Copland’s national idiom. The UNC Cello Choir, directed by Brent Wissick, turned in a touching performance which made one think that the work could and should reach a wide audience.
Allen Anderson (b. 1951) is from a generation trained with High Modernism in its ears. We heard the world premiere of "Some Ragged Spots," a one-movement work for solo piano written for and performed by Thomas Warburton, formerly on the musicology faculty at UNC. This was an engaging work, the title of which refers both to the piano rag and to a certain “messiness” the composer assured us. To my ears the harmonically indistinct and rhythmically active opening recalled both Debussy and Ives, particularly the latter in his playful moods. A lengthy development of this material led to a slower, rather foggy moment, with some rhapsodic statements piercing the mist. After an Ellingtonian chord, a more rhythmically stable allegro followed (stride piano?), with an extremely witty adagio close. I can’t imagine a more sympathetic or talented advocate for this erudite but charming music than Warburton, whose playing was brilliant, and at an impressive level of sheer pianism. Bravo!
After intermission came the world premiere of "Focal Point" for flute and piano by Stephen Anderson (b. 1971), performed by Brooks de Wetter-Smith and the composer. Anderson gave the flutist plenty of extended techniques to dig his teeth into, but little in the way of material idiomatic for the flute that would really communicate. The composer’s technique at the piano suffered by comparison with what had been heard on the first half, with very little nuance (dynamics ranging from f to ffff), and the piano drowning out the flute even though the lid was most of the way down. All in all, a work the dimensions of which were much larger than the amount of raw material and the skill displayed in its development would warrant.
The concert closed with an attractive song cycle, Songs of Time and Tide, by Rogers to texts of Tagore, delivered capably by soprano Tina Stallard and pianist Gregory Boatwright. Particularly appealing were the fourth and fifth songs, with skilled text painting (the fourth) and floating harmonies leading to a pianissimo close (fifth). Again, this is a work which could easily enter the standard repertoire.