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Monday, March 18 , 2019, 11:21 pm | Fair 53º


Gerald Carpenter: Ensemble for Contemporary Music Goes to Extremes to Define ‘The Norm’

At UC Santa Barbara, Jeremy Haladyna, director of the Ensemble for Contemporary Music, was contemplating the program for their next concert — at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall — and he couldn’t help but notice the wide and dramatic gulf between the heavyweight works and the lightweight ones.

“I got to thinking,” he said to me, “what would average look like? And I came up with ‘Norm-as-Meme.’ Anyway, here is a program both heavier than, and lighter than, ‘The Norm’ — a program that divides half and half, not surprisingly, between challenging tests of a player’s mettle (and of audience grit) versus entertaining toss-offs.

“And so visual announcements of the concert invite patrons to consider these two extremes of the repertoire in respect to Mr. Average, otherwise known as ‘The Norm.’ What would Norm consider too cerebral, or else completely ‘over the top,’ ‘too misbehavin’ for a typical new music concert?”

Before I turn this preview over to Haladyna, as is my usual practice, I will set down the bare bones of the program, as extracted from his notes.

The idealistic young virtuosos will play, probably in this order, Charles Ives’ Trio for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano (1907, revised 1915), Claude Debussy’s Études for Solo Piano, L 136 (1915), Scott Perry’s Preludes, Inventions and Canons’ for Piano Solo (2007), Witold Lutoslawski’s Trio for Winds (1944), Brother Devil, the finale from Robert Suderburg’s Chamber Music III (“Night Set”) for Trombone and Piano (1972), Charles Chaynes’ Impulsions for Trombone and Piano (1971), Darius Milhaud’s Second Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 244 (1944) and John Harbison’s Four Songs of Solitude for Solo Violin (1985).

Act One, enter Haladyna: “The three-movement Piano Trio of Charles Ives injects wild levity into the chamber setting, and stands as one of his most uncontrolled essays outside the orchestra. Dating from 1904-11, the central movement even bears a cryptic acronym in lieu of title: TSIAJ (which we now know stands for ‘This Scherzo Is a Joke’).

“In a context of crazed polyrhythm, we have a New England harvest of revival hymns, parade music and even songs from Ives’ TKE college fraternity! The final movement is only slightly more decorous, moving into drawing-room parody of late Romantic heart-on-the-sleeve chromaticism, which reduces down eventually into the deep-lunged, sung ardor of the Revivalist tent. For the Ives, violinist M.D. Owensby joins cellist Joshua Kauk and pianist Jarod Fedele.

“Standing completely at the opposite polar extreme is Book I of Debussy’s late Études for piano, which will be played by ECM pianist Marie-Agathe Charpagne of France. This monument of piano technique from 1915 was accompanied by an intimidating warning to prospective pianists by the composer.

“Only those with remarkable hands, said he, should attempt a concert career, and these ingenious pieces are so written as to frustrate and befuddle hands of a less-gifted ilk. Each of the six pieces comprising Book I centers on a particular knotty problem: thirds, fourths, sixths, octaves and even negotiation of the keyboard without thumbs (with eight fingers only, in the style of the old harpsichord masters).

“Equally heavy from the standpoint of demands on the artist are the Preludes, Inventions and Canons for piano solo (2007) by the Californian Scott W. Perry. Due to receive his doctorate in a short matter of months, he is here fêted with a selection from this extensive collection by ECM director Jeremy Haladyna, to whom the entire set is dedicated.

“These works stress counterpoint in a metrical terrain of flux, so that the player’s two hands are intentionally not together, yet clearly in the most lucid relationship as to pitch and motive. In this deliciously contrarian music, 12 eight notes played in the time normally taken by 11 is commonplace! A true believer in the pieces, Haladyna is not afraid to sweat them.”

Intermission: Intrigued by Haladyna’s firsthand knowledge of Perry and his music, I decided to contact the young composer and get his opinion on a subject that has become the elephant in the room of my thinking about art: “being a composer — or any kind of creative artist — in the age of social media.” As follow-ups, I asked Perry if he was “old enough to remember when the Internet was not yet the predominant medium of social exchange.” And if he was “confident — that is to say, optimistic — about the chances of the individual vision to achieve any kind of widespread impact.”

Here are his excellent responses:

“Social media can be a good thing. The advantages are obvious enough; one can quickly share one’s work with a potentially large audience, connect with like-minded others around the world and possibly build a career that way.

“The disadvantages are also pretty severe when it comes to making a psychologically healthy society. The narcissistic tendencies we all have seem to be amplified by social media. I know that at times my own use of social media has made me feel as though I was consistently building up my own ego instead of serving a broader aesthetic vision. After reflecting on this, I decided that I would do my best only to use social media to post my recorded music and concert dates. Sometimes I still get lured into the mirror pool, but I eventually feel sickened enough to return to engaging in my surroundings.

“While one can reach a large audience with one’s work, social media has a bit of a problem in promoting a short attention span. If something doesn’t make you feel good within a few seconds, it is far too easy to switch to another free or cheap entertainment. I can remember growing up with vinyl records, tapes and finally CDs. With physical recorded media, the time investment rewards a long attention span. If you bought a record and didn’t like it at first, I think you would be much more likely to try it again since you have invested the time and money to go to a record store, read the liner notes and look at the album art. Also, since people had invested in all of that, they were more likely to just sit and listen.

“I’m not sure about my level of optimism for the individual vision. I can think of several older composers who are making good careers for themselves despite the fact that their work requires a very substantial attention span. They seem to be outliers, and while they are making a reasonable living composing fairly demanding music, their work isn't exactly popular. However, it seems to me that if you are serving some form of the truth that you will press on with it and eventually it will make some impact on society.”

Act Two, and Haladyna continues: “Feather-light and delectable are two movements from Lutoslawski's rambunctious Trio for Winds of 1944. Written in a suburb of Warsaw in an attic during Nazi occupation, they nonetheless show nothing of the trying times of that epoch for Poles. The two outer movements are nothing if not crazy and fun, sounding like open-air wind band music that can never quite settle down, that even attempts respectability (as in the third movement ‘fugue’) and yet completely fails in doing so. Hugely angular melodies, with leaps exceeding the octave, sweep down in an attempt to sound as graceful as a ballerina in triple-time pirouette, but in the process only sound like humorous caricatures. For Lutoslawski, the ECM winds are the stars: Evan Losoya, oboe; Hiroko Sugawara, clarinet; and Zac Erstad, bassoon.

“If strings and winds can regale, so can brass, as we hear in Brother Devil, the finale from Robert Suderburg’s Night Set for Trombone and Piano, with trombonist Paul Wu teaming up with Jeremy Haladyna. Plunger and wah-wah mutes allow the soloist to ‘speak’ through his horn, and there’s additional verbalizing (or at least scat-singing) by the accompanist! Son of a jazz trombonist, the composer bases part of this movement on the style of jazz great ‘Tricky’ Sam Nanton. Suderburg served on the faculties of both the University of Washington and Williams College in Massachusetts.

“French composer Charles Chaynes, not to be outdone, contributes his wild Impulsions for the very same formation: trombone and piano. Here it’s Nick Mazuk on trombone joining the director. Impressions here are a bit ‘heavier,’ due primarily to spooky low drumbeats over which the trombone offers crisp, impertinent commentary, erupting eventually into a rapid contest as to who can finish first and in the most outrageously outspoken style: trombone or piano. The composer was a Milhaud pupil (here quite apt!) who himself garnered the Rome prize and did extensive work for Radio France over a long career, passing away only recently, in 2016.

“Darius Milhaud straddles the void between the light and the heavy: his Second Sonata for viola and piano opens with the carefree, countryfied Champêtre — given an appropriately gracile interpretation by violist Soha Sadeghinejad and pianist Marie-Agathe Charpagne. The other two movements offer stark contrast: Dramatique, in second position, proceeds from a more Romantic ethos and offers the violist opportunity for authentic lyricism; and Rude, in third position, is full of the rough, low-register playing to which the viola is so well suited; the movement is a sort of maze of rhythm values, too, in which the two players alternately chase at one another’s heels and then join together.

“The final ‘weighty’ contribution is from John Harbison, whose 1985 Songs of Solitude are sampled in part by ECM violin stalwart, M.D. Owensby. Written as a personal gift to his wife, Harbison describes the three kinds of solitude broached in the piece: the solitude of the composer ‘in a landscape of his own invention,’ the solitude of the performer ‘onstage or in a practice room,’ and the solitude of the listener, suddenly confronted with something that seems private, and wondering if he intrudes as voyeur.

“As judge-and-jury-meme for the entire effort, ‘The Norm’ is sure to find his views on music enlarged in both directions, as he takes in music with quite different specific gravity from what he's used to: both heavier ... and lighter!”

Tickets to this concert are $10 for general admission, $5 for non-UCSB students, and free for UCSB students and children under 12. Click here to purchase tickets online, or call the Associated Students Ticket Office at 805.893.2064. Tickets also are available at the door.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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