As if Meredith’s Steinway Piano Festival weren’t enough to slake the musical thirst of the public in post-Election Day Central NC, Duke and UNC put on a concurrent festival of new music that drew consistently large crowds to three different venues – and a smaller audience for a magnificent performance/talk – for a total of fifteen works by mostly living composers that involved some 225 professional and student musicians. As at Meredith, CVNC provides wall-to-wall coverage, drawing upon its stable of experienced critics.

The second program, given in Hill Hall on November 8, was something of a logistical nightmare; the angst this caused some attendees as the evening wore on was not eased by the pain more than a few non-Chapel Hillians had getting there, for I-40 is at its absolute worst on Friday nights….

The program began with the UNC Symphony Orchestra performing John Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra.” This became the Overture to the composer’s Gatsby opera, but it was written first, in 1985, when he was still seeking financial support to complete the undertaking. It is a frothy piece that stands well on its own, it is accessible, even to those who profess not to like “new music,” and it was exceptionally well played by the large orchestra under the watchful and animated leadership of Tonu Kalam.

The stage was then reconfigured for two works given by the UNC Percussion Ensemble, which Lynn Glassock has made one of the University’s top-flight groups. “Signals Intelligence,” by Christopher Adler, received its world premiere; the composer, currently at the University of San Diego, holds a Ph.D. from Duke. The (uncredited) program notes reveal that “SIGINT,” as some ex-military types will be used to shortening the title, “explores the experience of hearing an electronic transmission in which order is clearly audible but the information density is too high for any human to parse.” Six percussionists played it, and its mostly-mallet orientation suggested other percussion scores by Reich and Company. Like some of those, this one went on a bit too long (at first hearing), but perhaps that was intentional, given the purpose of the exploration. Adler was present, and his work was received with great enthusiasm.

Edgard Varèse’s true milestone work, “Ionisation,” was heard next. It was composed in 1931 but remains fresh and exciting, and the stunning reading given it by 13 players under Glassock’s direction would in and of itself have made the evening (and the trip) worthwhile.

(Curiously, Varèse was cited in the performance/talk given by WFU violinist Jacqui Carrasco the following afternoon, when the subject was Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms No. 9,” for violin and tape; she mentioned that Davidovsky had assisted the senior composer when, in 1957-8, he created what may be the most famous and best-known all-electronic work, the Poème électronique , created for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and heard there – and later, on recordings – by hundreds of thousands of people. While off on this brief tangent, it is worth mentioning that Carrasco’s two readings of the 9th Synchronism were knockouts in every respect. The performances, given in Room 107 of Hill Hall on the afternoon of November 9, bracketed her informative “performer’s perspective” talk.)

Intermission on November 8 allowed the percussionists to leave and the UNC Wind Ensemble to set up for its two contributions, which began with Scott Lindroth’s “Spin Cycle” (2001). This work by one of Duke’s resident composers was in one respect a parallel to Adler’s, for the program notes (also uncredited, but clearly by the composer) reveal that the score’s “swirling” passages “alternate with syncopated repeated notes that sound something like Morse code,” which may be familiar to ex-military types of a certain age. (Morse code is no longer taught in US service schools….). Lindroth dedicated his work to T.J. Anderson, the distinguished composer who now lives in Chapel Hill. The Wind Ensemble, under the baton of Michael Votta, Jr. (formerly affiliated with Duke), played it beautifully, and the response of the crowd was, again, enthusiastic. It was a special treat to hear a large-scale work by Lindroth, whose catalog is formidable but who has till now been represented here mostly by chamber scores.

The response to John Mayrose’s “Rhapsody quasi passacaglia,” which received its premiere, was comparably warm, and he clearly basked in it. The composer, who has made quite a name for himself as a guitarist, earned his M.A. at Duke this year and is pursing his Ph.D. there now, working with Stephen Jaffe, Lindroth, and Anthony Kelley (one of whose new works was performed on the last of these Milestones 2002 concerts). The “Rhapsody…” involves a small wind ensemble and is predominantly dark and somewhat somber. It came across as a superbly crafted contribution to the literature, and, like Adler’s new piece, it would be delightful to hear it again at some point.

The grand finale was Samuel Barber’s “Prayers of Kierkegaard” (1954), which involved a stage-full of people – the UNCSO and the Carolina Choir – conducted by Susan Klebanow. With all those folks involved (plus organist W. Sands Hobgood) it may have come as a surprise to those who read the notes that the work was performed in a “reduction” by Lee Hoiby, prepared for the American Guild of Organists in 1966. This reduction didn’t reduce much, but it trimmed the winds and reassigned some of the omitted passages to the organ. The performance was stunning in several respects – in terms of the sheer volume of sound in a very problematic hall, of course, but also because it was so sensitively given by soprano Terry Rhodes, chorus soloists Katherine S. Amerikaner, soprano, Rosemary Rohrman, alto, and Evan Becker, tenor, and the celebrated Carolina Choir (which was formed at UNC by the great Lara Hoggard). The music provided solace at the end of a long evening, and the texts themselves proved salutary, too, as our nation moves inexorably toward war.

The program ended with a great outpouring of applause and cheers at 10:18 p.m. This prompted consideration of how much music was heard vs. how much time was consumed in the stage set-ups. The results: the performances took 56 minutes, or approximately 42% of the time the audience invested in hearing these six bracing scores.

The Barber will be repeated (with some different wind players, since the full score was prepared before space constraints forced the adoption of Hoiby’s edition) on November 24 at 8:00 p.m. in the same venue. See our calendar for details.