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Olga Kleiankina has been charting whole new courses for NCSU and beyond with her spectacular pianism and innovative programming, but this latest offering, prepared for and presented by Chamber Music Raleigh at the NC Museum of Art, blazed new trails of an entirely different sort. The recital was given in partnership with Emil Polyak, of the NCSU College of Design, who is making new waves of his own in the field of visual images and projections in the creation of which he is aided and abetted by artificial intelligence. Someone observed that some AI is not all that smart, but Polyak's images were often fascinating and generally tended to relate in some way or another to the music that Kleiankina played. The program itself consisted of (mostly) short pieces, richly varied and attractively contrasted with one another, by contemporary composers, all but one of whom are still in the land of the living. The overall theme was "…Our Passage to the Stars…," taken from the title of a new (2017) piece, composed for inclusion in this (apparently evolving) program, by NCSU conductor and bassist Peter Askim, who is charting his own new courses with the two orchestras that form the core of the work of the Raleigh Civic Symphony Association. The other fairly hot-off-the-presses work involving an artist based at NCSU was "Considering Jupiter" (also 2017) by Rodney Waschka II, sort of the last guy left standing in terms of academicians working tirelessly for new music by living musicians in our region – he is the longtime director of NCSU's vibrant ArtsNow program.
But these guys were hardly alone in the fascinating program heard at the NCMA. The afternoon began with Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Mécanisme" (2000, from a set called Dichotomie); he is the MD designate in San Francisco, where he replaces Michael Tilson Thomas. Also heard were two pieces by William Bolcom, taken from 12 New Etudes, in which he seeks (with mixed success) to divorce American music from its European influences. Two of György Ligeti's Etudes; remember that he was one of the pioneers of space music (alongside Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss II, of course) in a wildly famous film called 2001: A Space Odyssey (released however in 1968). George Crumb, of Black Angels fame, was represented with three zodiac pieces for amplified piano that sounded a good deal more manipulated than amplified but to each his (or her) own; the last of these reminded a few of the geezers in attendance of the great Henry Cowell's pioneer inside-the-piano music, so maybe there's nothing new under the sun or the stars either for that matter. Waschka's new work – for piano and tape, the tape stemming in part from a sound wave collected during the incredible Jupiter mission – was not the only selection saluting that planet: Judith Lang Zaimont's Jupiter's Moons was represented with three excerpts, two of which – Ganymede and Callisto – bore actual moon names. And then, last but hardly least, Frederic Rzewski's "Piece IV" (from Four Pieces) served as the bravura grand finale; regular CMR attendees will recognize the name (although we misspelled it last time) from a review of an April 7 recital by Beilman and Weiss – which makes CMR and the NCMA sort of Rzewski Central hereabouts.
Most of this music could be – generally is – separated from the images with perhaps equally satisfactory results, since most of us tend to think of music in terms of visual-images to at least certain extents. Here the images were a smorgasbord of film clips – well-generated videos, perhaps – ranging from machine gears, bearings, and parts in constant motion, driven by volume and tempo (which seem to have gotten to a least a few in attendance) to slow-moving colored lights that likewise moved with the music to pulsating rectangles that flopped around like a line of newly-recruited chorines. Among the more interesting – because it suggested our expanding universe to me – was a set of collapsing images that appeared to disappear in what may have been a black hole while concurrently the entire thing was enlarged across the screen.
Askim's piece and Waschka's too involved some real pianism that enabled Kleiankina to show off her staggering chops. This is not to say the others didn't, but these new works turned out to be among the program's most attractive – Waschka's thanks perhaps to the variety introduced by the fixed electronic music, a clear specialty of this creator, and Askim's because here is another fine young creative mind with something to say. The synergy that involves these composers and this pianist as amplified by Polyak was evident during and after the individual performances, while – throughout – she was clearly effusive about the project, drawing in the audience by means of her brief explanations and her overt enthusiasm. And she's ideal for NCSU, where there's a long tradition of the arts, science, engineering, and technology coexisting in a happy mix.
A DVD would be welcome at some point. Stay tuned for more from all these artists.