Orchestral Music Review Print

UNC-Greensboro: A Week Awash With Living Composers!

October 15, 2005 - Greensboro, NC:

Over the years, CVNC has covered programs of contemporary music given at Duke and at various schools of the UNC system, often in conjunction with composer residencies. This has been especially true at campuses that emphasize performance, such as ECU, UNCG, and the NCSA. Starting October 12, an imaginary (or actual...) music student at UNCG could have refitted Figaro's famous aria to "Composers here! Composers there..." as the national conference of the Society of Composers, Inc., was held on the campus and some 100 composers were in attendance. A series of concerts that had begun with a preview event on the evening of October 12 culminated three days later, on October 15, with the very well-prepared UNC Greensboro Symphony Orchestra's Aycock Auditorium performance of four challenging and substantial works by four different composers. Robert Gutter, Director of Orchestral Activities, led three of the pieces and Matthew Thomas Troy, newly appointed assistant conductor, led the fourth.

Only Libby Larsen (b.1950) was familiar to me, mostly through glowing national reviews of her many operas. She has a catalog of over 200 works in almost every form. Her "Ring of Fire" (1995) for full orchestra was commissioned by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra Society. A line by T.S. Eliot – "We only live, only suspire consumed by either fire or fire," from Little Gidding (No. 4 of Four Quartets) – served as the inspiration. "Ring" shows skilled writing for the orchestra with great washes of percussion and snatches of melody in the cellos and woodwinds. After a very quiet beginning, with string tremolos and muted horns, the scoring for low brass is a striking study of loud sections contrasted with muted passages. Several fleeting melodies, taken up in turn by the solo horn or solo oboe or the entire plush cello section, were immediately attractive. Muted whoops by the trombone choir were memorable. Gutter led a fluent and well-balanced performance that made a strong case for the work. Concertmistress LaTannia Ellerbe delivered her brief solo with confidence and fine tone.

Larsen was especially active all week, giving lectures and master classes and firing the students' enthusiasm. It was announced that she has been commissioned to compose an opera based on William Inge's play Picnic to inaugurate the renovation of Aycock Auditorium in 2008. This is a bold initiative on the part of the university, and it will be eagerly awaited.

Greg A. Steinke's "All in a Moment's Time," a unique take on the concerto form, received its world premiere performance, with Scott Rawls as the viola soloist. It was composed on commission in 1996, but the original debut failed to take place. The composer (b.1942) used his then nine-year old son's poem, "All in a moment's Time," as the basis for what his program note describes as a "concerto with the usual stuff – fast and slow movements, 'cadenzas,' and appealing sonic images mixed in a different way." He was also influenced by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and by aspects of the style of William Walton's Viola Concerto. "All in a Moment's Time" is dedicated to the composer's son Kyle. Rawls, a UNCG faculty member and GSO principal, possesses a mellow and rich-sounding instrument that projects unusually well. Much but by no means all of the score is soulful and reflective. Steinke weaves a complex but engaging tapestry that supports or contrasts with the lustrous baritone ruminations of the viola. In the orchestra, pizzicato strings are heard in abundance, at various dynamics – now delicate, now harsh, now rebounding loudly from the fingerboards. There are eerie harmonics, resulting from fingers sliding much of the length of the cello and double bass strings. There are solo cadenza-like episodes for viola and brief, attractive duets with the principal oboe and, later, the harp. Rawls' lustrous playing seemed as effortless as it was deeply expressive. Gutter kept tight reins on the orchestra's dynamics, never covering his soloist, and securing taut ensemble throughout. I look forward to hearing this work again.

Dorothy Hindman (b.1966), a native of Miami, Florida, has taught music theory at Birmingham-Southern College since 1994. You might say that her "Magic City" (in moto perpetuo) insisted upon being heard. According to the program notes, it "utilizes four simple chords and a steady eight note pulse.... [G]radually, the durations of each chord and its associated melodies and timbres become shorter, until the chords appear as a progression and a composite melody is heard." The work can be seen as a metaphor for the bustling activity of a city. With a confident and elegant beat, Matthew Troy led an arresting and immediately attractive performance. There was some edgy high writing for violins; the intonation was clean and precise. There seemed to be an overall spatial component as the steady pulse spread across the orchestra and among its sections.

There were great contrasts in dynamics and density in "Salus…esto," composed by Ellsworth Milburn (b.1938) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Springfield (Missouri) Symphony Association. The first and last words of the state motto make up the work's title, and the name "Springfield" "occurs in Morse code in several of the (piece's) rhythms." After a loud beginning, with heavily bowed strings, brazen brass, and assertive timpani, the scoring quickly lightens. A short clarinet melody is quickly taken up by the violas and the other strings. Bombastic sections alternate with tranquil episodes and subtle solos. Complex rhythmic patterns are scattered throughout. A fine solo for muted violin, near the end, was subtly played by Concertmistress Ellerbe. Gutter led a vigorous and well-focused performance that maintained balances in even the loudest passages.