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Music Review Print

Reverence and Irreverence in Hill Hall

April 2, 2006 - Chapel Hill, NC:

A fascinating afternoon of music was provided by a variety of staff and students of the University of North Carolina Department of Music on Sunday April 2. Those who have followed the Symposium at UNC titled "Festival on the Hill: Music at Black Mountain" know about the unique retreat that Black Mountain College offered to renowned Austro-German artists fleeing the tyranny of Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s and the tradition of experimental and modernist music that thrived there. For more history of Black Mountain College, see the review of the April 1 concert by Joe & Elizabeth Kahn.

The concert opened with the UNC Chamber Singers, conducted by Susan Klebanow. First was a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 122 ("I rejoiced when they said to me: 'Let us go to the House of the Lord'") by Stefan Wolpe. It is one of his Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus submitted to an Israeli competition in 1955. This meditative setting, rich in harmony, was a very reverent opening for a concert that covered a lot of ground. This was followed by a bit of whimsy begun by Arnold Schoenberg not long after his arrival in this country. As an avenue to familiarity with the folk music of America he chose a song from John Jacob Niles' collection Songs of the Hill Folk. "My Horses Ain't Hungry (they won't eat your hay)" was left incomplete by Schoenberg only to be picked up by UNC-CH professor Allen Anderson, who adapted and completed it. The work was delightfully sung by the UNC Chamber Singers. The emphasis here was on fun, some inventive harmonies, and interesting counterpoint but no tone rows or atonal ventures were detected.

Aaron Likness performed John Cage's 1944 "Root of an Unfocus" for prepared piano. It is one of a set of three pieces he completed in 1948 while at a Black Mountain College summer session. The piano is prepared with dampers and other devices and the music is performed from the keyboard. This is a vigorously percussive number with a passacaglia-type rhythm underlying chordal interjections in the middle and upper registers. On the other hand, Henry Cowell's "The Banshee" (1925), a piece with extended piano technique, required pianist Samuel Gingher to perform under the bonnet (so to speak) inside the piano, plucking, strumming, and massaging the strings, producing harplike sounds and other more ethereal effects.

John Cage's Suite for Toy Piano (1948) provided the only occasion this reviewer has ever witnessed where a pianist – in this case, Jennifer Smith – after acknowledging warm applause, picked up her instrument and walked off the stage with it. The Suite started off like a simple scale exercise and gradually grew in complexity, squeezing a lot of sound out of a tiny octave-and-a-half or two-octave box. Some of Cage's earmark repetitive patterns were there; the last movement sounded a bit like a French tune Milhaud used in his Suite française (1945). Cross-fertilization of ideas, techniques, and inspiration was one of the treasured products of the Black Mountain experience.

The first half of the concert closed with Darius Milhaud's Cantata of War (1940). Using text of Paul Claudel, this four movement work (I. Chorus of the Guilty, II. Voice of the Lord, III. Chorus of the Martyrs, and IV. The Hour of God) captures the devastating emotions of those who find themselves, their loved ones, and their homeland caught up in the unnatural tragedy of war. It must have had a powerful impact on the many European refugee musicians who had gathered at the BMC Summer Music Institute when it was performed there in 1944. To the best of my knowledge (and Klebanow's) there is no recording of this music currently available. The Carolina Choir under Klebanow's direction handled this difficult music competently and sensitively. It is a complete and satisfying work that deserves more attention in the repertoire of those choral groups that can meet the challenge.

The second half of the concert began with some downright serious fun. With the excellent accompaniment of pianist Mayron Tsong, soprano Terry Rhodes impersonated "La Diva de l'Empire," Eric Satie's 1919 satire on flamboyant singers. Rhodes costumed and performed the piece just right – it was a joy to see and hear. Tenor Stafford Wing, with Thomas Otten at the piano, sang Satie's Trois Melodies (1916), cut out of the same sense of humor and jollity as the previous selection. "The Statue of Bronze" tells of a bronze frog who "would rather be blowing bubbles with the soap of the moon" but alas "at night the insects go to bed in her mouth." "Dapheneo" is a question-and-answer joke about "bird trees." And "The Mad Hatter" is about the fellow who finds his watch running three days slow due to butter and crumbs in the works – even dipping it in tea won't make it go any faster. Satie was a master of this type of song, and Wing's understated presentation of the three numbers just made them all the funnier.

American composer Lou Harrison taught at BMC only a short time, from 1951 to 1953. This extraordinarily creative man was, throughout his life, searching for new sounds, and new languages of musical expression. One of his fascinations was all sorts of eastern music, and especially that of Java. We heard his Double Concerto for violin and cello with Javanese gamelan (1982). Richard Luby was the violinist, Brent Wissick, the cellist and Ethan Lechner directed the Gamelan Nyai Saraswati (an ensemble of bells, gongs, and drums involving eighteen percussionists). The first movement featured mostly the bells and drums with the violin and cello interjecting relatively sparsely. The second movement was a wild fantastical tour de force for the soloists with the drums. The third movement began and ended with a strong oriental melody in octaves with other combinations of bells providing an ostinato. In the middle section the violin and cello joined in with a related countermelody. At times the Gamelan (ensemble) sounded like a gentle waterfall or a great temple gong or a festive celebration of sound. It was a special pleasure to hear such a unique and rarely-performed treasure.

The concert, which began with the reverence of Wolpe's setting of Psalm 122, closed with a benediction of irreverence, ostensibly "by" John Cage. It was described as the original "happening" and reflects Cage's interest at the time in east-Asian philosophy that sought to remove the self from the creative act. It began with a loud gong. Two readers on stepladders read poetry. A pianist and a Javanese instrument played as characters with balloons, others dressed as a horse, and two more, as chickens, paraded up and down the aisles. Two beautiful, tame llamas were led up and down the aisles. The gong sounded periodically, I think when a new "performer" entered. Toward the end, all stopped while a hauntingly beautiful Appalachian song was sung. I probably missed some of this, but what I experienced was great fun. The concert as a whole was quite exhilarating and I cast my vote for more.