Innovative programming by the NewMusic@ECU Festival filled a week with seven concerts, four seminars, and four master classes. The goal was to give students maximum exposure to contemporary music and seminal and significant 20th-century works. On March 27, I took in three of the last events, given in A. J. Fletcher Recital Hall on the campus of East Carolina University.

Beyond mere exposure to new works, in-depth and intense performance experience for music students was a goal. Some of the fruits of this encounter were given star billing in the afternoon concert of new music for large ensembles. Members of the ECU NewMusic Camerata had been thoroughly rehearsed by their restrained conductor Christopher Knighten. The accomplished instrumental playing was close and at times equal to professional levels.

Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (1953) by György Ligeti (b.1923) proved to be a winning appetizer. These were played by Jessica Dixon, flute and piccolo, Morgan Zentner, oboe, Kathyrn Brown, clarinet, Shrieka Gilliard, bassoon, and Laura Carter, horn. The latter balanced her brass instrument with considerable care and never covered her fellow players. Such soft playing control is a mark of advanced skill. The fast first bagatelle featured an effervescent clarinet and strongly characterized scoring for the bassoon. The second opened with a muted horn and had a prominent clarinet melody set against stark woodwind chords. The third was jaunty, with an extended flute melody set above a base provided by clarinet and bassoon while the muted horn played in its highest register. A sassy clarinet and pungent scoring dominated the fast-paced and rhythmic fourth bagatelle. The fifth had muted instruments (the oboe looked like it had a sock in it) and some very low bassoon notes. The last was fast and witty with muted horn and a bright piccolo punctuated, most humorously, by a single bassoon note at the very end.

I had never heard Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” (1906) performed by anything less than a full orchestra with offstage brass removed into a balcony or side location. Knighten made effective use of the intimate Recital Hall, which seats perhaps 300 and has a large stage and full shell. A string quartet and double bass were seated at the left front of the stage. As far as possible behind them on the left side were four flutes. Trumpeter Mark Mashburn stood in the right side wings and posed his ambiguous questions perfectly. According to the fine unsigned program notes, Ives assigned the three different instrumental elements specific significance. The muted strings “are symbolic of ‘the Silences of the Druids – who Know, See and Hear Nothing.’ The solo trumpet asks ‘The Perennial Question of Existence’ seven times in the same voice and tone. The four flutes, [portraying] ‘other human beings,’ undertake the search for ‘the Invisible Answer.'” The staging and precisely executed phrasing would have pleased the crotchety composer. In his politically incorrect spirit, this performance was no wimpy “lady’s music” but faced the Transcendental unflinchingly.

Eighteen student musicians filled the stage for a superb performance of La Création du Monde (1923) by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). According to the program notes, it “preced[ed] Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by a year [and] was the first large scale work of its kind to be influenced by jazz.” Space won’t allow naming all the fine players, but the richly styled alto saxophone of Matt Roehrich must be acknowledged since he had a prominent role in most of the six continuously played scenes. Adam Fussel’s trombone slides were also memorable. The complex rhythms were well managed by percussionists Cameron Britt and Tripp Aldridge and pianist Allen Amos.