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By this point, everyone knows the story about the famous virtuoso who played violin for 45 minutes in a Washington, DC Metro station, with only seven passersby stopping to listen, and only one who recognized him (it was Joshua Bell) – a case of the scriptural admonition regarding “pearls before swine.” In the case of UNC Greensboro, perhaps the relevant passage is that regarding the candle under the bushel. The School of Music, Theatre and Dance can be proud that it has students capable of producing world-class performances, and it is blessed to have first-rate physical facilities in which to present these performances to the public. The final part of the equation is to achieve a better connection with the potential concert-going public (more than 1.5 million people in the region alone, not to mention those who might come from farther away), since such performances in such spaces deserve to be heard by more than two dozen listeners.
The Present-Continuous New Music Ensemble, under the direction of professor and composer Alejandro Rutty, was heard in the intimate and acoustically resonant space of the Organ Hall at UNC Greensboro. The program began with a group improvisation beginning with all the players leaning into the innards of the piano, with sustained tones and tremblings in the semi-dark, and then picking up other instruments to continue the threads of what had been started in the piano. This successful beginning ended after only three minutes or so – I could easily imagine it continuing for a fascinating twenty minutes or so. Maybe next time.
Next up was a piece from 1994, Lick, by composer Julia Wolfe, known for her work with Bang on a Can in New York City. The piece was scored for soprano sax, electric guitar, piano, percussion, cello and double bass, and played loud. It was based around a more-or-less unison lick punctuated by silences, and was highly rhythmic. The cello, at least in this rendition, was odd man out, being almost always inaudible (remedy: proper mixing/amplification). The performance was vivid.
Listeners were then treated to a premiere of a work for the entire ensemble (the “rhythm section” for the Wolfe, plus flute, clarinet, alto and tenor saxes, and violin) – Trancension, by UNCG graduate student Brian Koenig. This was an interesting work in several sections – an opening with material in combinations of twos and threes, a slower passage with tongue clicks and more extended techniques, moving to more diatonic harmonies, and a final quicker, more “American-sounding” section with a rush to the finale. Problems were primarily in the area of the acoustic balance, with flute, clarinet, violin and cello often inaudible in the mix.
The music of Steve Reich is historically important, but his Violin Phase (1967) is more interesting as a think-piece (what would it sound like if I set up repetitive patterns for violins, and see how they sound when they are in and out of phase?) than an actual generator of interest for the listener. Think, instead, of the change-ringing patterns used to murderous intent in a famous novel by Dorothy L. Sayers…..
The jewel in the crown came after intermission, with one of the most well-known and most highly-regarded works of the chamber repertoire in the twentieth century, the Quartet for the End of Time, by Olivier Messiaen, given an exceptional performance by Catherine Keen Hock, clarinet, Mili Fernandez, violin, Lauren Weaver, cello, and Sally Todd, piano, four doctoral students who produced an experience worthy of famous international virtuosi. This is a beautiful work in which its very simplicity means that every potential flaw is open to view, and under this gaze the players held up very well. The space collaborated with a level of silence found almost nowhere these days, which meant that the silences embedded in the movement for clarinet solo seemed almost out of time, in another plane altogether. Hock’s capability to go from ppppp to fffff required exceptional courage when everything can be heard so clearly. Sally Todd’s rhythmic verve seemed to be directing the difficult unison passages for the ensemble as if the spirit of the composer himself was present. The two movements for string instrument and piano (first cello and piano, and then the close for violin and piano) were masterfully done, with the final notes of the final movement disappearing into the heavens. Such work deserves a careful recording so that UNCG can show the world what fine music is being made in Greensboro. Deans, administrators, president? How about it? Don’t hide such light under a bushel.