Programs at the East Duke Nelson Music Room, on the campus of Duke University, are frequently interrupted by local distractions. Perhaps a Cageian moment this time, it seemed perfectly natural that the 8 o’clock train would arrive to accompany Shirish Korde’s beautiful 1990 composition, “Tenderness of Cranes.” Flutist Laura Gilbert wasn’t in the least bothered by the intrusion as she gracefully traversed the numerous stands holding music attached to gilded corrugated cardboard with scalloped edges. Her scintillating performance was an auspicious beginning. One of the highlights of the evening would be Tempest Fantasy (2001-2) and a special appearance of the guest composer, Paul Moravec, the winner of a 2004 Pulitzer prize for music.

Moravec, a member of the prestigious New York Composers Circle, is in residence with graduate student composers at Duke this week. He offered a few words about Tempest Fantasy and invited the performers to play selections from the composition, a gesture that speaks volumes. Moravec is not only interested in pleasing himself with his musical creations, but he aso seeks to compose works the audience will understand. Spun out of the open fifths of the violin, for example, the work is through-composed (versus broken into discernable movements of contrasting material) with melodic threads rooted in traditional language. Three sections are character sketches: “Ariel,” the sprite from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and who symbolizes the playwright’s imagination, is also a singer and thus a source of inspiration for the lyrical first section; “Prospero,” whose voice is melancholic, lending itself to the slow lyric melody of the cello; and “Caliban,” described by Shakespeare as “a savage, and deformed Slave,” is humorously portrayed in a dance featuring bass clarinet and piano.

The final two movements, “Sweet Air” and “Fantasia,” are more or less programmatic. With rumbling voices of cello and piano, and rich textures, “Fantasia” recalls the fierce tempest where the quiet “eye of the storm” provides momentary relief during the otherwise relentless driving rhythms and dynamic rattling thunder. Still, one hears the influence of Debussy and Stravinsky — robust, pounding rhythms swathed in lush, colorful layers. It’s quite miraculous, I thought, how four instruments could sound like an orchestra, yet penetrate like a knife. Without a doubt, Moravec’s sensitivity to language is the impulse behind the rapturous music.

Eric Pritchard, the Ciompi Quartet’s first violinist, looked exuberantly ragged following his near perfect performance of the vigorous piece. It wasn’t the virtuosic demands, such as racing passage work requiring athletic bow control, however, but the emotional commitment that he poured into his playing. Likewise for Fred Raimi, the quartet ‘cellist — I have not seen or heard him play better than on this occasion. Jane Hawkins, piano, and Kelly Burke, clarinet/bass clarinet, performed with equal finesse. Said Moravec, referring to the faculty players, “this is … a composer’s dream-come-true.”

Three notable compositions were also featured on the program: Songs and Dances from the New Village (recorded May 2007) by Yugoslavian born composer Dusan Bogdanovic was performed by Laura Gilbert, flute, and Matthew Slotkin, guitar. Slotkin also performed brilliantly the jazz-flamenco infused “Fuoco,” from Libra Sonatine (1986), by French composer Ronland Dyens. With Bachian counterpoint and beautiful percussion, this goes on my list as an absolute favorite. Commissioned by the Monadnock Music Festival, and premiered at a Mallarmé Chamber Players’ program earlier this month, Scott Lindroth’s “Music for Three” (2008) was performed by Gilbert, Slotkin and Jonathan Bagg, the violist of Ciompi Quartet. It is a beautifully structured and accessible piece that I look forward to hearing again.  

During a 2005 conversation with Dick Gordon (The Connection, WBUR) and Paul Moravec, Terry Teachout, music critic and librettist for a new opera by Paul Moravec (The Letter), commented by telephone about the “ugliness” of late modern music. I say that we have ears to listen to new sounds because we have heard experimental works, including the avant-garde of the ’50s and ’60s, which is why the Encounters series is so valuable to our community.