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In the world of chamber music, it's always a thrill to hear new compositions. The standard of playing has never been higher, and the variety of different musical languages available to composers is dazzling. How exciting, then, to hear an entire evening of recent works!
On Tuesday night two of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts' fine faculty members came together to present a concert of music composed within the past two years, including one world premiere and one consortium premiere.
Judith Saxton, trumpet, is a frequent performer in many major North Carolina ensembles and has recently thrilled audiences as a featured soloist with the North Carolina Brass Band. Pianist Allison Gagnon leads the collaborative piano program at UNCSA and is known internationally as a leading keyboard collaborator. Together their formidable prowess created an enchanting sonic experience: splashy, singing trumpet soaring above lush and sparkling piano.
Opening their concert was the almost brand-new Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Brazilian-American composer Luis Engelke. Saxton informed the audience that she had performed the world premiere of this piece in May of 2015 at the International Trumpet Guild Conference in Columbus, and that the UNCSA performance was the first in the Southeast. Engelke's sonata embraced vibrant, dance-like rhythms. The glowing acoustic of UNCSA's Watson Hall often threatened to obscure rhythmic detail, but Saxton and Gagnon danced their way through the piece with sharp precision. Especially exciting was the closing movement, "Toccata Festiva," which uses streams of rapid-fire repeated notes. The two performers kept the high energy tempos consistent, closing the piece with grace and confidence.
Rounding out the first half was James M. Stephenson's "Silent Echoes (for many)." This evocative piece deals with two contrasting attributes of the Grand Canyon – its awesome beauty and its danger to hikers. "Silent Echoes (for many)" contained some of the lushest and most alluring sounds on the program. With judicious use of the piano's sustain pedal, Stephenson wove a gorgeous fabric of bright chords and filigree. Where the lovely harmonies seemed to reflect the soft, blended colors of the canyon, the intense sustain evoked its almost unimaginable depth and the hopelessness and finality of an unfortunate fall into the gorge. Gagnon's touch was just right – precise and intentional but never overbearing.
Following intermission were the two premieres: the Sonata no. 2 in F-sharp minor by Stanley Friedman and Kevin McKee's "Song for a Friend," – a consortium commission.
Dedicated to Western State Colorado University's late Director of Bands and trumpet professor John Wacker, "Song for a Friend" was a lovely and personal memorial. Using a cryptogram, McKee transformed the word "orange" (referencing Wacker's signature orange sports car) into a musical theme that ran throughout the piece – quite touching.
The Friedman sonata, the evening's longest piece, was confusingly anachronistic. Subtitled "Romantic," this lengthy piece is practically a style study of various romantic harmonic schemes. There are echoes of everything from Beethoven to Mahler coexisting in this twenty-plus minute buffet. In his program notes, Friedman contended that the piece "is not at all a step backwards; rather, it is a continuation of my life-long commitment to building a body of trumpet repertoire with depth and substance." I can't help but suggest that a better way of building the trumpet repertoire would be to explore musical ideas that haven't already been used so well by the masters Friedman was imitating.
My ambivalence toward the Friedman sonata fit into my larger complaint about this otherwise fine program.
I began this review by noting the unprecedented variety of musical tools and aesthetic choices available to contemporary composers. The 20th century's era of experimentation opened up every possible combination of notes (the Serialists and Microtonalists) and rhythms (Nancarrow); it explored texture (Ligeti) and color (the Spectralists); it explored chance (Cage), performance art (Monk), improvisation (Riley), and audience interaction (Oliveros). The last century made electronic and digital techniques available (Xenakis, Babbitt, Chowning, and Puckett) and legitimized the use of popular idioms (Bang on a Can and Jacob TV).
Given the options bequeathed to this century by the last one, the four works in Saxton and Gagnon's program had a very focused aesthetic range. Excluding brief moments of colorful exploration, they all used triadic, post-romantic harmony, clear formal architecture, and a generally polite approach to the instruments and their method of sound production.
None of these characteristics is undesirable, and of course it would be silly to require that every concert of newly-composed music contain some arbitrary amount of adventurous harmony or extended techniques. But, given the availability of so many musical choices, an evening of works with such a narrow sonic range seemed like a missed opportunity.
Having said all that, Saxton and Gagnon deserve utmost admiration for their willingness to commission, practice, and present new works. They could have just as easily presented a concert of familiar pieces and transcriptions; instead, they chose to take a risk and asked the audience to do the same. The works they chose were well-written, engaging, and occasionally transcendent.They present options and challenges to the performer who is looking for new repertoire to program. Overall, Saxton and Gagnon performed wonderfully. I look forward to hearing them apply their awesome musicianship to an even wider array of new works.