The Milestones 2004 Music Festival was presented by two great universities – Duke and UNC – and involved eight events that featured no less than ten premieres of new music and engaged nearly 300 student musicians performing alongside faculty and guests from near and far. The gala concert, given in UNC’s Hill Hall on November 19, involved a goodly portion of these. It was advertised as “A Festival of New, Recent and Landmark Music” – the title intrigued me. I am not sure which of the pieces selected for this program fit the “Landmark” category, as they were all new to me, although I have heard other music by Schwantner and Rouse, and scores by both have been performed here, in the Triangle.

The opening selection, “Rainbow Body,” was written in 2000 by Peabody Conservatory composer and teacher Christopher Theofanidis. Scored for large orchestra, the work was inspired by the music of Hildegard von Bingen, specifically her chant “Ave Maria, O auctrix vite.” After introducing bits and pieces of the melody in various sections of the orchestra, the strings sing the full theme lyrically before the full orchestra enters as the work reaches its first climax with the addition of brass. The melody is heard again in the violas with the cellos commenting along. After a rather primitive sounding section featuring brass and cello, the piece moves along to a thrilling conclusion, which for some reason reminded me of “The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla.” It was obviously an accomplished piece by a composer who knows his tools and his techniques, and it was very effectively played by the stage-filling large orchestra conducted by Maestro Tonu Kalam.

The second piece, The Blatherskite’s Comeuppance, A Melodrama in Three Episodes, composed by Duke doctoral degree candidate Carl Schimmel, received its premiere on this occasion. As indicated by the title, it is in three sections – loud, louder, and loudest. It was well played by the UNC Wind Ensemble, conducted by Michael Votta. I readily admit I am not hip enough to understand either the title or the clever notes about it in the program. The piece is described as a “game, something like science or religion,” and the “list of equipment that you might find useful in playing it” includes “All Mine…, Roger Moore…, Duck! Rabbit, Duck!…, Lustige Streiche…” and eleven more like this – the quotes are from the program notes. The texture of the music was in places so thick with tone clusters, especially in the lower register, that I thought this must be genuine heavy metal music. This and the other intensity factor – loudness – created distortions that were a bit uncomfortable to my ears. The question is: was this heavy metal gold or lead? That said, I didn’t dislike it, and I would welcome the chance to hear more from this young composer.

The senior composer represented on the program, Joseph Schwantner, was born way back in 1943. His maturity and confidence showed in his 1994 composition for winds, brass, percussion and piano, “In Evening Stillness.” The performance, by the UNC Wind Ensemble conducted by Michael Votta, was superb. The exquisite music involves some really magical use of the percussion section, especially a number of different mallet instruments that, in combination with the fine piano work by Duke faculty member Randall Love, produced a fantasy atmosphere that was a pure delight.

A clutch of percussionists led by Lynn Glassock performed Christopher Rouse’s ode to rock drumming and particularly the late John “Bonzo” Bonham, of Led Zeppelin fame. My son would have loved this one, entitled “Bonham.” He’s seen all the touring groups that beat out rhythms on trashcan lids, walls, tables, etc. It was entertaining.

Duke’s Rodney Wynkoop directed the world premiere of Chia-Yu Hsu’s “Shui Diao Ge To,” performed by the combined UNC Chamber Singers and the Duke Chamber Choir with Mary Hamilton and David Heid as duo pianists. Based on an ancient Chinese poem that deals with family, grief and loneliness, the setting by Hsu is in constant tension harmonically, relieved only by a lyrical and touching piano conclusion. The sensitive performance left a new awareness of the universal desire of all people to be connected. Nothing can do this better than music.

The program closed with another premiere, a piece commissioned with the support of a Chapman Family Foundation Fellowship through the UNC Institute of Arts and Humanities. Composer C. Bryan Rulon was present and seemed pleased with the reading of his opus by an ensemble of guest, faculty and student artists including soprano soloist Rebecca Swingle-Putland and the Carolina Choir, conducted by Susan Klebanow. The score of Love Songs of Molecules, based on passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, was complex enough to offer challenges to all the players. Although it was not accomplished without minor flaws (probably unnoticeable for the most part), the music was effectively rendered. The broad arches, the forward momentum, and the variety of color and sound in this work were all impressive. Of all the pieces on the program, this is the one I would most like to hear again.

Without new music there would be no old music. This simplistic thought occurred to me during this concert. It’s not profound, but it does prompt a note of praise and gratitude to those who provide for all of us a lively art that continues to challenge our ears, our minds and our hearts, and that fills our future with great promise. Bravo to all involved in the Milestones Festival!