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Partnering with UNC Charlotte and picking up prestigious sponsors such as the Knight Foundation and the NEA, the Charlotte New Music Festival continues to draw topnotch composers and musicians for an intriguing variety of workshops, concerts, and competitions. The sixth annual CNMF ran from June 19 through July 1, and I caught the last concert on the final day, which also turned out to be a competition of sorts. Hosted by festival founder and executive artistic director Elizabeth Kowalski, "Contest in the Concert of the Miniatures" presented 24 new pieces written within the space of a week. All of the pieces were performed by members of Pittsburgh's Beo String Quartet in a wide variety of instrumental configurations, from solo to full quartet, with only two days for the players to learn the music. And just because there were no laptops, Wiimotes, Xboxes, tape loops, or pre-recorded sound, the feel of this concert was anything but retro. The event was staged behind the taproom at the Lenny Boy Brewing Co. in a warehouse ambiance further compromised by mechanical outbursts of brewing activity and spasms of a rainstorm pelting the roof.
Amid this din, I was unable to catch all of Kowalski's introductory remarks. The audience was configured around the quartet in a roughly circular or octagonal formation two rows deep, providing seating for approximately 60 people. Wooden picnic tables supplied the octagonal component of the seating. What I did make out of Kowalski's remarks – and from Drew Dolan, program director of the composers workshop, who spoke after the intermission – was that the audience would be voting for the winner of the Contest on their smartphones, with the announcement of the winner following shortly after the concert concluded. Whether this was exactly what happened is open to doubt, since I overheard the winning composer protesting his own victory – on the grounds that he had voted for himself 10 times. Nor could I say how diligently the 24 composers followed the suggestion that their music celebrate the centenary of Lou Harrison or the 50-year anniversary of The Beatles' landmark album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Opening the concert, Nathan Scalise's "A Day in Lou Harrison's Life" addressed both prompts – or at least the title did. A duo for violin and cello, the piece leaned toward Appalachia with its pizzicatos after opening with some weird and evocative cello glisses, clearly an early contender. Other pieces that seemed to address the prompts even obliquely included Ian Wiese's "Hard Day," Stephen Wiegel's "Genesis, Gamelan, and Birth," and – a solo for viola, and another contender – Zach Davis' "On a Melody of Lou Harrison." Writing a quiet piece became a risky strategy at Lenny Boy if you wanted to win. Swallowed up by brewing noises, I couldn't fully hear or judge the latter stages of Yasha Hoffman's "Exploration" for solo violin after a variety of bowing effects, but fortune smiled a few pieces later on when Lewis Ingham's "A Sharper Breath" for two violins and viola premiered. Violinist Jason Neukom called us all together to stand around the trio as they played, helping us. I can't recall any previous concert where I was close enough to a violinist to see the hairs on his bow arm.
After that unique powwow, notable for the pianissimo harmonics from the other violinist, Sandro Leal Santiesteban, I found Colin Payne's "Sullivan in Song" for viola and cello to be equally enjoyable, purposeful in its counterpoint. Yet the piece afterwards, "Cogs" by Victor Zheng, won my smartphone vote. Written for violin, viola, and cello, the piece began with a minimalist backbeat from the cello and pizzicatos from the higher strings, coalescing into a wisp of melody, with a propulsive syncopation that reminded me of Bartók quartets. Slowing things down, Chelsea Williamson's "Portrait of a Concerto" for violin and viola was a shrewd programming placement, a little like the Barber Adagio in its melancholy. No other composition impressed me quite as much before intermission, though cellist Ryan Ash was notably effective playing eerie harmonics, some below his instrument's bridge, in Chase Jordan's dark and brooding "Atlantic Opalescence I."
That and a few other pieces fell short of winning my heartiest approval due to their brevity. To cite one example, Logan Rutledge's "Problem Child" for violin, viola, and cello sported interesting pizzicatos but ultimately too little development. A fuller architecture could be discerned in Daniel Fawcett's "ECHOING RISE" for two violins and viola, not unlike Vaughan Williams' A Lark Ascending but with a more insect-like busyness. Written for the same instrumentation, Tyler Waters' "The Center of the Circle" spotlighted violist Neukom amid a mist of violin harmonics. Neukom figured prominently in the next two compositions that I fancied, converging effectively with Ash in "a glimpse of something passed" after composer Tim Clay launched them on separate paths. Immediately afterwards, the violist brought a nice improvisatory energy to the Davis piece. Not to be outdone, Christopher Miller's "Experiment 625" for violin and cello had all the kinetic energy of a mad scientist's lab, harmonious pizzicatos bending toward melody, with the violin briefly taking on a banjo's timbre.
Concluding the program, Maya Johnson's "Turn Off Your Mind" was one of just two new pieces written for a full string quartet, with bluegrass flavorings from the violins and the first percussive burst from Ash's cello all evening long. Together with Williamson's dirge-like piece and Julie Mitchell's "Phantasm" for violin and cello – very mainstream until its outbreak of violin pizzicatos – there was evidence that the women composers on the program more readily embraced traditional forms and sounds. But with new European and Asian composers returning toward tonality, it may be argued that these feminine composers are really more au courante, while the lingering iconoclasm, electronica, and academic nerdiness that still prevail across the USA are exactly what is isolating America from the new millennium of classical music.
Don't get me wrong. There was a discernable difference overall between the four compositions by women and the more outré works I heard from the men, but not a radical one. More memorable, as the members of the Beo Quartet acknowledged the composers strewn among the audience, was sense of community. Seated in a circle as we were, it was impossible to ignore the expressions of joy on the faces of the composers as they listened to their new works being played for the first time. Those joyous expressions remained even when the compositions weren't their own – even when those sounds were mostly swallowed by a sea of brewing suds and the clatter of falling rain.