Music Review: At Blair Composers’ Concert, it’s ‘goodnight noises everywhere’

composersI slipped in just in time to catch the first down beat on Monday night at the Blair School of Music Composers Concert.  Vanderbilt University has a number of things going for its composition program.  I love how they consistently bring in guest artists, since it helps expose students to a lot of important contemporary thought and artistry.

The program on Monday included two guest artists – cellist Ovidiu Marinescu and harpist Mario Falcao – who contributed their considerable talents to the new works on the program. The evening consisted of music by Michael Slayton, Michael Alec Rose, Stan Link, Joshua McGuire and Michael Kurek. I must applaud the concert’s use of projected visuals. Images accompanied both the opening and closing works, which helped frame the audience’s experience.

slaytonThe evening opened with Mirórs by Michael Slayton. Arranged for flute, clarinet and violin, Mirórs was a vibrant and engaging piece, and it made a strong start to the evening. Slayton was commissioned by Australian flautist Agatha Yim, and his piece is homage to the work of Joan Miró. Each movement was a musical interpretation of a Miró painting (and the painting referenced was projected).

Composing music for paintings that are already finished is a daunting task – it’s all about capturing the right mood and tone. Miró’s paintings are buoyant, playful and mesmerizing –   sophisticated emotions to capture. Slayton achieved this beautifully via inventive percussion techniques on flute – he even found similar metallic tones on the low end of the violin. More than once he literally played the beats in the air, as Bil Jackson’s clarinet and Philip Dikeman’s flute perched a half-step (or less) away from each other. That’s a high risk/reward situation for a composer, and this ensemble sold me on every inch of the extended technique. Okay, maybe there was too much singing and clicking in the flute part, but I’m not saying it because:  1) it was commissioned by the flautist, and 2) this reviewer once composed a piece for beat-boxing flautist.

One more thing about Mirórs:  I loved watching violinist Carolyn Huebl play. She performed on a few pieces during the evening with such physicality – she really seems to embody the character of her part in each work.

roseThe second work was Unturned Stones, a three-movement work by Michael Alec Rose.  This string duet was played admirably by Blair undergrads Danielle Hoisington (violin) and Laura Williamson (viola), though at times the timbre difference between the two instruments proved to be a challenge. The third movement, “Coming Home to the World,” reminded me of some of Judd Greenstein’s music: motion, engaging melodic interest, and a bevy of eighth notes. It came off as playful, with a sense of wonder. Hoisington and Williamson deserved kudos for playing such a challenging work. I look forward to hearing them again.

I thoroughly enjoyed Exeunt Omnes, from Further Adieux by Stan Link, which received a terrific performance courtesy of the Blakemore Trio and percussionist William Wiggins. The opening is strident and dramatic, and Wiggins’ vibes were a nice touch. Tension continued to build in a patient, mature way, with forceful playing by Felix Wang on cello. In the second section, orchestral bells replaced the vibe. The piece also ingeniously used pitched percussion to back strings. In this instance, it was an appealing combination of marimba, snap pizzicato on cello and notes played on the low end of the piano. I’ve never heard anything like it. And just like that, it was over. Stan Link knows when to leave a party, it seems.

joshuamcquireHallucination on a theme by Schonberg had a great title and was accompanied by wonderful program notes (in the style of Allen Ginsberg). Joshua McGuire knows a thing or two about words. The work is quite dramatic, and reminded me of Schonberg’s pre-12 tone era. I often wanted to hear more robustness in the middle and low registers, but that might have been due to where I was sitting.

I’ll be honest: the “short” intermission ran nearly 30 minutes, because there were quite a number of things that needed to be re-arranged on stage. Everything after intermission shone brilliantly.

The opening work was the world premiere Kurek’s Serenade for Violoncello and Harp. In keeping with Kurek’s reputation for the celesta, the beginning featured shimmering lines in the upper register of the harp. Falcao’s harp sang beautifully, in the most passionate work on the program.  Can I say “conventionally beautiful” in a new music review? If Marinescu’s cello playing was a person, it would be Elizabeth Taylor. It was that gorgeous.

kurekThe serenade is passionate music with a fresh sound; Kurek’s reputation is well deserved. Serendipitously, both Michael Slayton and Stan Link composed pieces quoting Die Winterreise by Franz Shubert. The classic art song was presented first, sung dramatically by Jonathan Retzlaff accompanied by Jennifer McGuire.

Next, Seanad Chang performed Michael Slayton’s Meditation and Reflections for solo viola; then, Stan Link presented “The Crystal Ship” from Dispatches from Devereux Slough. Amy Jarman sang soprano, and was backed by members of the Atlantic Ensemble. Link’s music was dramatic, with wonderful support by Wiggins on percussion. I can’t wait to see Devereux Slough in its entirety.

The closing work, the one everyone will write home about, was the world premiere of Michael Kurek’s Goodnight Moon (yes, that Goodnight Moon), sung beautifully by Crystal Kurek. The work was presented with projections of the picture book, and the role of storyteller benefited from Ms. Kurek’s musical theater background. This work will surely have a life beyond Nashville in “young people’s concerts” around the English speaking world.

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About Kyle J. Baker

Kyle J. Baker is a Nashville-based composer and impresario most known for directing Nashville’s Soundcrawl Festival. He composes for acoustic and digital forces with a recurring emphasis on rhythmic post-minimal structures. Classical in heritage, but vernacular in vocabulary, his music has garnered such attention as 2008 Belmont University Composition Prize, Honorable Mention in the 2008 Pathways Young Band Composition Contest as well as distribution by Brassworks4.com, His notable teachers include Ken Read, John LaBarbara, Delfeayo Marsalis and William Pursell. Born in Scotland and raised in St. Louis, Baker holds an M.Mus from Belmont University and makes his home in Cane Ridge, Tenn. with his wife Joy and cat Lili.