Walking into Tyler-Tallman Hall at Davidson College, at most two minutes before the Fresh Ink concert was scheduled to begin, I was pleased – and a little surprised – to find plenty of available seats near the front. Davidson theatergoers and concertgoers tend to arrive early for general seating events, so the prime seats are usually gone when I arrive, except for the couple that might be saved for media. But a couple of cursory glances at the stage and the program booklet had clarified what had happened. The stage had the messy look of a recording studio, with a grand piano, a marimba, a nest of assorted percussion that included a row of wind chimes and a xylophone, a cello leaning on a chair that had access to a pedal-operated playback machine, and a laptop computer perched near a music stand whose purpose was yet to be determined. Very likely, the imposing battery of keyboards and percussion had caused the audience to gravitate toward the back rows. The lineup of composers – including Kevin Puts, Jeffrey Nytch, Andy Akiho, John Allemeier, and Joseph Schwantner – all aged 70 or less and all alive, was probably the best explanation for all those empty seats. Fortunately, neither the percussion nor the modernity proved to be as aggressive or offensive as anticipated. From my seat in the third row, I could take in the full panorama and not feel assaulted by the music.
Alan Black, the principal cellist of the Charlotte Symphony, served as emcee, interviewing Fresh Ink leader and percussionist Scott Christian about his instrumental arsenal and his company’s repertoire. Then we checked in with Fresh Ink cellist Mira Frisch, who mainly told us how her foot-pedals would be incorporated when she reappeared. We began with violinist Jenny Topilow, clarinetist John Sadak, and Christian confining himself to marimba for Puts’s And Legions Will Rise. Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his most recent opera, Silent Night, Puts apparently has an affinity for moments of quiescence. Legions began with gentle, lively runs from the marimba over a shifting drone of the violin and clarinet. When the violin came to life, the marimba became swifter in accompaniment, a distant echo of manic agitation before receding into an undertow as the violin began to sing and the clarinet took up a contrapuntal role. A unison passage seemed to foretell a concluding fadeout but segued instead into the composition’s most memorable subject, one with a folksy Appalachian flavor. Puts had plenty more to say but, unlike Silent Night, these legions never seemed military. They seemed to be natural, with the marimba spewing forth particularly fresh ideas in a variety of tempos, resembling an everlasting stream with its arpeggiated vitality.
The world premiere of Nytch’s Covenant, with words from Jessica Hand’s “Wedding Poem,” unveiled a high-tech New Millennium solo – for a multi-talented performer. Hand and her partner were at the concert, so the performance was like a second presentation of a wedding gift, but this time the poet herself was one of the recipients. Mezzo soprano Lindsey Goodman not only hummed Nytch’s melody and sang Hand’s lyric, she pre-recorded the two intertwining tracks of flute accompaniment, triggering them with an Apple laptop. There would be live evidence later in the concert supporting my suspicion that Goodman is more gifted as an instrumentalist than as a vocalist, yet the whole piece was very effective as Goodman imparted sufficient warmth to the amorous poetry, which frankly upstaged the music, with only a couple of serious challenges to the top of her vocal range.
Along with Christian, Frisch returned to bring us the music that belonged with her earlier demonstration, Akiho’s 21. As it turned out, Christian was also operating some electronics, triggering a pre-recorded tambourine track at the start of the piece while playing his marimba. Contrary to her demo, the cellist played barefoot, layering on a pre-recorded track while plucking pizzicatos. More foot action ensued, as Frisch rhythmically pedaled a bass drum. Christian didn’t confine himself to the marimba’s elegant wooden bars, picking up a pair of drumsticks and beating a rhythmic tattoo on the side of the instrument during the pizzicatos. With all those forces at their disposal, Christian and Frisch were able to build the sort of cacophony that would have confirmed the fears that had kept traditionalists from attending. The rest of the piece, which included one very welcome lull, was more interesting to watch than to hear as Christian switched back and forth from sticks to mallets, at one point wielding both while launching a cowbell pulse behind the bowed cello. Akiho’s paean to multitasking ended with a final five-channel salvo.
Introducing Allemeier’s Like Gravity, Christian touched upon the origins of his group at UNC Charlotte, where Allemeier teaches. Surprising when you consider that violinist Topilow, the one Charlotte resident in the group, is its southernmost member and three-fifths of Fresh Ink reside in the Virginias with affiliations as far north as Pittsburgh. After the Akiho antics and noise, the Gravity quartet was comparatively traditional, with a South American tang. Frisch, Sadak, and Christian joined the violinist onstage – all concentrating exclusively on their primary instruments. Sadak had a little more to do on clarinet than he had earlier, initiating the opening dialogue with the marimba. Christian’s second response subsided into an undercurrent with Frisch’s entrance on cello, followed by Sadak and Topilow layering on. The second section of the piece began in a languid tango mood, with the composer borrowing a few notes from the bridge of “Whatever Lola Wants” and giving it to the marimba as a vamp. Eventually, this dreary section climaxed with a fascinating marimba solo from Christian before he resumed his tango vamp one last time behind the trio.
Schwantner was the one composer on the program that I had heard before, live in an percussion orgy of a concerto played by Evelyn Glennie in 2005 with the Charlotte Symphony and, far more modestly, on record in a brief encore-length flute sonata, “Black Anemones,” that I reviewed in 2008. Taking Charge, in its North Carolina debut, contained elements of both pieces: adding percussionist Christian to the flute sonata personnel of “Anemones,” with Anne Waltner making her lone appearance at the piano, and delivering plenty of the theatricality I remember from the concerto. All of the musicians multitasked, but while the others moved about, Waltner was relatively confined to her piano bench, where she had a gong and a tambourine ready-to-hand. Theatrically, Goodman must be considered the star of this four-movement chamber work, for she not only executed a series of fine solos on flute and piccolo, she did them on the move. Goodman had designated exits and entrances, playing a portion of her solo parts offstage.
The wind virtuoso had a tambourine of her own, so she could join in the percussion ruckus as the first movement ended. While Christian launched the calming second movement with gong and wind chimes, Goodman joined in from offstage on flute and piccolo – likely in a stairwell, for she emerged upstairs, still soloing ethereally on the piccolo over a soothingly soft accompaniment. Now she was in the courtyard balcony overlooking the stage, where we had seen her at intermission, setting up a second music stand and briefly warming up. Goodman remained there through the next episode, kicked off by Christian’s gong and a xylophone/vibraphone brew. Christian briefly exchanged his mallets for a bow, and exquisite drones from the xylophone and vibraphone replaced the melody. Goodman reassumed dominance after Christian went back to mallets and exited with her piccolo, fading out in the stairwell. Picking up her flute, she re-emerged downstairs and set the pace for the finale, which began as a purling allegro. Christian was everywhere, whipping his percussion kit into ever increasing turmoil as Goodman continued twittering restlessly. Abruptly, Goodman abandoned the flute and launched into a fierce piccolo rant. Everyone was in full cry when, even more abruptly, before the onslaught could become annoying, the piece abruptly broke in mid-fortissimo flight.
Christian and his group have the knack of choosing challenging, pleasing repertoire, and Fresh Ink plays them – and stages them – impeccably. Fresh Ink is well worth hearing and following.