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UCSB Playfully Blends Old and New Modern Classical Music

The Ensemble for Contemporary Music performs a diverse collection of pieces by "contemporary" composers

Billed as “Esperanto it AIN’T!”, Tuesday night’s concert by UCSB’s Ensemble for Contemporary Music at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall included a diverse selection of modern classical pieces of different styles, eras, instrumentation and languages — both literal and musical.

The first, and oldest, piece was written by the late Henry Brant at the tender age of 19, although he revised it two decades later; Brant died last year at age 94 after many years living in Santa Barbara. This abstract “neoclassical chamber music” piece was performed boldly by Beverly Brossmann on flute and Ensemble for Contemporary Music director Jeremy Haladyna on piano. Although the lights went out temporarily during the piece, Brossmann recovered admirably.

Next was the “most Danish music you’ll every hear in your life,” a collection of songs by — of course — Danish composer Per Nørgård. These are poems about winter weather set to somber music, expressively sung by Annie Thompson with Haladyna again on piano. In his introduction, Haladyna joked that Thompson’s Wisconsin upbringing helped her to relate to the subject matter.

This was followed by the evening’s most playfully staged piece, “Interpolation: Mobile for Flute” by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. Here, two audience members were asked to choose from the colors yellow, blue and red. These choices ended up determining which of the three flautists, who were each wearing a shirt with one of these colors, would play the most and the least. During the performance, the three flautists sat on carts (“mobiles,” labeled “Mobil 1,” “Mobil 2” and “Mobil 3” with signs from the oil company) which were slowly pushed around the stage by helpers, but only when the flautist was playing.

A string quartet then performed a piece by UCSB Department of Music graduate student Ryosuke Yagi. With its choppy recurring theme and bursts of intense double stops, I found this to be the most musically satisfying piece of the evening, except for the closing number.

Chilean composer Juan Orrego-Salas’ piece, “Mobili Op. 63,” based on different aspects of motion, was then performed by Kimberly Fitch on viola and Haladyna on piano. Haladyna pointed out that it is somewhat rare to hear works by contemporary South American composers. To my ears, there was no discernible South American influence; rather, the piece consists of broad phrases punctuated with bursts of energy with no geographical anchor.

After a short intermission, two pieces by UCSB composer-in-residence Evan Chambers were performed. The first, a duet by violists Bridget Callahan and Shannon McCue, was a short contemplative piece called “Meditation,” with a wide range of dynamics and some surprising harmonies. This was followed by “The Fisherstreet Duo” performed by Callahan and contrabassist Richard Cassarino. This was rather diverse, with the first movement being a mournful dirge, and the second having slap bass and sliding notes leading into an abstract, angular jig.

Next was the premier of UCSB undergraduate Ryan Kerr’s piece “Musical Chairs,” in which “contestants” perform according to random choices by audience members and Kerr, who conducted the piece. The musicians rotated chairs while playing, and when a specified audience member yelled “Time!” they finished the phrase they were playing, with the last one to stop getting removed from the next round. For the record, violinist Dimitry Olevsky won the “game.”

The evening’s closer was a spirited performance of Terry Riley’s seminal minimalist piece “In C.” For this piece, each musician controls which of 53 short musical phrases they want to play, leading to spontaneities and rich interplay between the musicians. Haladyna introduced this by saying the point is for the musicians “to hang together, but not be together.” Approximately 15 musicians took part in this performance, which featured prominent pipe organ by Haladyna and amplified string instruments.

Phrases emerged from then faded back into the rhythmic cacophony. Everything meshed around the five-minute mark, and at seven minutes there was a calm synchronization that was followed by playing whose intensity was seemingly controlled by the brightness of the stage lights.

In my opinion “In C” was way too short, lasting only about nine and a half minutes. But what a way to close the concert, with a 45-year-old piece that still sounds contemporary!

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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