Stephen Jaffe explained the origin of the program title “First Takes” as a reflection of the view of art as process.  Each of the three compositions was recorded during the afternoon and during the performance in Baldwin Auditorium with a few retakes to insure the best possible realization of their work.  All three of the composers were worthy of such attention, and it was a pleasure to hear the culminating works of their graduate studies at Duke University Department of Music.

John Bower’s The Echo Over the Voice (2006), for solo viola, chamber orchestra and interactive electronics, unfolds gradually, beginning with sustained notes for the violin and cello pedal points. As the piece develops, the composer, in real time, enhances the soundscape electronically, creating interesting texture and timbral contrasts.

A twenty-first century Berlioz, Bower brings his experience from the virtual reality laboratory, lending technical expertise to the compositional process. His understanding of orchestration and color and intuitive sense of musical line lend him the winning combination of artist and theorist. With hundreds of lines of carefully written computer code (he uses a program called “Super collider”), he works like a magician in his response to the acoustic instrumentalists.

Ciompi Quartet violist Jonathan Bagg, with the support of an outstanding ensemble, performed the viola part confidently; it weaves in and out of the foreground. Illuminated through contrasting motion, occasional high tessitura, and cadenzas, the composer’s score gives authority to the oft-neglected middle voice. A Stravinsky-like ‘coda’ signaled by a percussion flourish serves as a dramatic close for a very successful new work. 

Boveda celeste, desierto en mi imaginacion (2006) by Aristides Llaneza Sandoval is a one-movement piece written as part of his doctoral dissertation.  His inspiration, “the desert landscape of northern Mexico,” is a point of departure. But like describing a dream space, Sandoval’s musical interpretation is dense and difficult to describe. Perhaps it is the instrumentation (violins were obliterated by the brass) or the intensity and relentless rhythmic drive. The apparent randomness of his construction does not ‘self-organize.’ Only in the final section did I feel musically satisfied.

The final piece, String Theory (2006) was composed by Ph. D. candidate John Mayrose.  Inspired by the work of theoretical physicists of the modern age, Mayrose’s piece is composed in five well-defined sections, each one entitled for a scientific treatise. His program notes, though interesting, are at best tangential to enhancing the listener’s experience. The composer’s structure, use of familiar compositional devices and rhythmic integrity allowed us to step into an interesting sonic world.  Grounded in a Terry Riley-like pulsating electronic tone in the first section, for example, the composer takes us, quite willingly, on his musical journey. Mayrose, who performs on midi-guitar, explores many dimensions of the acoustic realm, and like Michael Green, who explains String Theory without the mathematics, this piece serves as a perfect metaphor for the world of sound we inhabit. In my mind, Mayrose does not break new ground, but like John Adams, he draws from compositional practices that coalesce brilliantly. 

Along with the Duke Faculty, appreciative audience and wonderful performers, I wish these talented composers the very best.  We’ll be listening for you!

Performers: Nathan Zalman, flute; Carrie Shull, oboe; Michael Certcher, clarinet; Joan Blazich, bass clarinet; Steven Stusek, baritone sax; Mary Lynn Michal, horn; Paul Wulfeck, trombone; John Hanks, percussion; Thom Limbert, percussion; Peter Zlotnick, percussion; John Mayrose, guitar; John Bower, electronics; Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp; Jane Hawkins, piano and synthesizer; Beth Tomlin, piano; Eliza Bagg, violin; Carol Chung, violin; Eric Pritchard; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Suzanne Rousso, viola; Brian Howard, cello; Fred Raimi, cello; Robbie Link, bass; J. Michael Votta, conductor. Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth, directors.