The Ninth Annual New Music Festival opened in the acoustically excellent Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina/Greensboro’s School of Music, Theater and Dance to the delight of faculty, students and guest composers. This festival is definitely the “in” place to be this week – a feeling of camaraderie and purpose allow outsiders such as this writer to feel once again the affectionate bonds between composers and performers prevalent in academia.

The audience was welcomed and the concert introduced by a nameless gentleman who later turned out to be the composer and conductor of the first and longest work (20′) on the concert, A Future of Tango (2010) by Alejandro Rutty (b. 1967) of the UNCG faculty. This exciting piece features the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet and is in three movements: “Year 2045: Mind Transfer Tango,” “Year 2098: Wartime Tango,” and “Year 2145: I’m a Martian Transfobeat: {milonga}.” Yes, the program notes are confusingly Apollinairesque, but the music is exciting and direct. The sax quartet is first-rate and soprano saxophonist Susan Fancher stood out both by virtue of the exciting part she had to play and because of the sweet expressive tone she coaxed from her instrument. The middle movement was less rapid than the first and last and provided some touching moments.

Rutty is a remarkably fluid conductor, as clear as a Boulez but far more expressive. The ensemble of 14 accompanying instruments (an augmented woodwind quintet, a string quintet, piano and percussion) was taut and crisp – the piano was called upon to double the extremes (high and low) and the percussion provided expressive punctuation as well as an exhausting off-beat ostinato on the triangle (reminiscent of a vehicle’s rear warning signal) in the third movement. This work was released in March 2012 on the Navona label in the all-Rutty CD, The Conscious Sleep-Walker.

After a pause to clear the stage, we were treated to a work for piano and vibraphone, Gradus ad Parnassum (2006) by Spanish composer Leandro Lorrio (b. 1961). Written in a spatial notation (without note values or bar lines) this excerpt of what is a collection of works for piano and any combination of other instruments is quiet and introspective, being composed mostly of slow ascending dissonant arpeggios some of whose notes were also sensitively played by Alan Kluttz on the vibraphone (motor off), adding a resonant sheen to the note. And except near the end, when harmonies changed more frequently, the pianist (Sally Todd) kept her foot on the damper pedal, adding to the eerie effect.

Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) is an iconoclast composer just dawning in the public perception. Born in Arkansas, he exiled himself to Mexico where he led a solitary life until his later years. He was awarded the MacArthur Prize in 1982 and began to be recognized.  He wrote almost exclusively for player-piano, using piano rolls, leaving a body of music of a rhythmic complexity beyond the reach of most musicians. The 3 Canons for Ursula (1998) were written to suit the phenomenal technical prowess of Ursula Oppens. In the first canon, each hand plays a rhythm of 5 against 4 and the two voices are in ratio of 5:7. Needless to say, the finesse of such distinctions become secondary to the actuality of the sound produced. Pianist Cicilia Yudha was impressive in this tightly constructed work, making the canonic structure clear to the audience. But for this listener, the works outlasted the interest they generated.

CCXCIV (2002) is the title of one of the most intriguing works of the evening, a setting of Petrarch’s Sonnet 294, by Argentine composer, Sebastián Zubieta, for soprano and double bass. The double bass, which in most music plays along with the cellos an octave lower, is a fascinating instrument in its own right. It is capable of more harmonics (overtones) than any of its cousins in the string family, a fact Stravinsky brought to light in his ballet Agon. Starting in an extremely high register, bassist Steven Landis provided a dissonant counterpoint to the flexible pure tones of soprano Lorena Guillén. Whereas most verbal phrases drop in pitch as they approach a period, Zubieta caused many of them to rise into the highest soprano register. This was very impressive singing and playing.

The concert ended with Harmonic Fields (2010) by Rumanian-born Liviu Marinescu (b. 1970), for three soprano instruments (flute, clarinet and soprano saxophone) and piano, ably directed by Eduardo Vargas. Replete with trills, tremolos and many repeated notes, much was made of the circle of fifths in this clearly atonal work.

The enthusiastic and thoughtful audience milled around in the foyer of the Recital Hall for many minutes, comparing notes about the diversity of what we had heard. There are four more concerts in the next two days.

A note to the organizers of the Festival – a better organized program with bio and program notes on the same page would make more sense to the audience rather than the catalog-like program on one page, listing of bios on another and program notes on still another.