Contemporary Music Review

Encounters With the Music of Our Time at Duke: Two Too Loud

March 22, 2003 - Durham, NC:

A hardy, moderate-sized audience was on hand in the Ernest W. Nelson Music Room for an Encounters concert March 22. Three of the four works played were by composer Sydney Hodkinson (b.1934); the Visiting Mary Duke Biddle Professor has been involved this spring with graduate students in composition. He joined the Eastman School of Music in 1973 and was, at the time of his retirement in 1998, Professor of Composition and Chair of the Conducting/Ensembles Department. The program notes (from [inactive 7/05]) describe the "composer's jazz/pop, rich-harmonic poetic and sometimes austere style (that) is... suffused with energy, wit, nobility, pathos, and beauty."

The composer's intent is to "make (his) music sing, regardless of the many worlds it inhabits."Percussionist Cameron Britt opened the program with a five-minute etude for contemporary snare drum. "Kerberos" (1990) was an apt name for this eardrum-shattering work that depicts Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades; it was painfully loud in the 330-seat Nelson Music Room. The added vocalizations were unclear: were they just for color or were they Greek words? Assorted drumsticks were used, along with a wide range of whisks. The piece needed a much greater space and would perhaps have fared better in, say, Baldwin Auditorium. After this first number, an elderly couple moved from near the front to balcony seats where they covered their ears from time to time. (Nelson is a treasured venue for traditional chamber music - duos, trios quartets, etc. The same cannot be said for percussion, for there is just too little space for the loud dynamics of percussion. More than once, I reflected on a flurry of articles about workplace police wanting to restrict decibel levels in orchestras in this country and Europe.)

The presentation of Requiescant: Elegy for Chamber Sextet ('In memoriam September 11, 2001') (2001) was ideal. This was the second performance - it was premiered by Proteus 5 at the 2002 Aspen Festival. After playing the work once, a brief demonstration of the three basic elements - "a melodic fragment (that begins in the strings and moves to the woodwinds), static bass pedal points in the piano, and a short chorale, the three stanzas of which are gradually shared by the entire sextet" - was given, after which the entire work was repeated. Hodkinson, who conducted, said that the third stanza contains a brief quotation from Monteverdi's 1608 "Lamento d'Arianna: Lasciate mi morire" ("O, Let me now die!") made without that composer's permission(!). The members of the sextet were Rebecca Troxler, flute and alto flute, Nicholas Lewis, clarinet and bass clarinet, Richard Luby, violin, Jonathan Kramer, cello, Cameron Britt, percussion, and Jane Hawkins, piano. The wide panorama of instrumental color was fascinating and effective. I look forward to hearing this work again as more is revealed with each hearing.

The concert ended with Set No. 9 for Percussion Trios ("Drawings for Percussion") (1977). Hodkinson recalled that, fifty years ago, he had written a work for the percussion group Nexus. He said that they made the mistake of sending him a complete list of all their instruments - some 312 - and that, being an impudent young composer, he set the piece for all of them! There were no post-premiere performances. Some twenty years later, he adapted the earlier work for Set No. 9 and went to the other extreme, calling upon each of the three percussionists to employ only two instruments at a time. The first movement, "Mad Scene," featured the sound of wood against wood - pairs of cylinders and hammers and planks. "Serpent Steps (Metal)" featured gongs, cymbals and xylophones. The concluding "Devil's Dance (Drum)" featured various hand techniques and drumsticks along with snare and bass drums and a showy finish. The composer took pains to praise University of North Carolina Percussion Ensemble Director Lynn Glassock for his rehearsal of three of its members, Tommy Perkinson, Patrick Hanna, and Livingston Sheats, saying that he said that he appreciated all the Saturday mornings they had sacrificed. The composer conducted this performance. Again, parts of this work were too loud for such a small venue.

Earlier, violist Jonathan Bagg and pianist Jane Hawkins joined for the first performance of "Tesserae" (2002) by Arthur Levering (b.1953). Since the composer sent no program notes, Bagg spoke briefly about the composer's music, which often requires large forces building works in layers to create complex textures. An example of this was apparent in "Tesserae" when the piano created an harmonic layer with bass notes left to resonate as others were added. The opening and closing were similar, with a quiet irregular pulse alternating with more active rhythmic and dynamic portions. Bagg used pizzicato and varied types of bowing: rapidly bowed notes were contrasted by slower, heavily bowed ones. The effects and textures of the layering by each instrument were fascinating.