Last week’s New@Night for the Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival brought us back once again to the lobby of the Armory. And once again, there were program changes. It seems that “playing it by ear” has been a running theme through all these shows, as injuries, illnesses, late additions and all sorts of other conundra change programs within days of the show. At the first New@Night, Monica Ohuchi walked out to the piano on crutches. At least there haven’t been any Visa or travel issues, as far as I know.
This time, the Viano Quartet’s Tate Zawadiuk and Aiden Kane–scheduled to perform Alistair Coleman’s Moonshot: A Triptych for String Quartet with CMNW co-artistic director Soovin Kim and Anna Lee–bowed out due to illness, along with composer Allistar Coleman. Rather than finding last-minute replacements to learn the piece, CMNW cut Moonshot from the program–leaving an altered triptych of solo and duo compositions.
Partitas, east and west
The concert opened with Benjamin Beilman performing the Partita for solo violin by Beilman’s classmate and friend at the über-prestigious Curtis Institute of music, Chris Rogerson. The piece is a play on the Baroque dance suite, one of the most common forms for a solo violin piece. It’s a common template for a reason: it’s a well-codified form that’s easy to play around with, with many conventional rhythms and tempi. The various movements corresponded with different styles and time signatures, allowing for both choreographed and improvised dances. Originally, such dance suites were composed as dance music, not classical listening-closely-while-sitting-still music–though there is plenty of contemporary “dance” music that warrants this same amount of attentive listening (Aphex Twin, Burial, SOPHIE and countless others).
That being said, the Baroque dance influence wasn’t obvious in Partita, which is hardly the most radical piece in the solo violin rep–though there were a lot of gestures one would never hear in the 18th century, such as the cascading dissonant scales growing in intensity, or the two-hand pizzicato (that is, left-hand and right-hand pizz at the same time) at the ending. And Beilman played the piece wonderfully, knowing the piece inside-and-out–unsurprising, given his close personal connection with the composer.
With Moonshot off the program, we went straight into Turkish cellist Efe Balgacigil (another Curtis graduate) playing the Partita for solo cello by composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun. Balgacigil studied for a time with Saygun in Istanbul, where the composer taught up to his death. I really enjoyed this performance, especially the full-bodied drones that pervade throughout the opening of the piece and at various points throughout.
Turkish music occupies a strange place in the Western canon. There are of the various alla Turca movements by Mozart and Beethoven, and the incorporation of janissary percussion into the western orchestra. But this influence can be obfuscated, as the further you travel east of Vienna the more remote the music seems to the “Western Canon.” These sharp boundaries we erect between cultures are arbitrary and rooted in politics and prejudice: there has been cultural and economic exchange throughout the world for millennia.
Besides, there’s no obligation for Saygun to have to write “Turkish” music, since he’s working within the European classical tradition rather than the Turkish folk one. Balgacigil mentioned in his performance preamble that Saygun’s biggest influences were the solo violin works of some of the biggest names in the genre: Bach, Paganini and the lesser-known Eugène Ysaÿe.
Overall I did like Partita a lot, finding it a nice balance between familiarity and uniqueness–somewhat like the more dissonant and rustic Eastern European composers like Bartok, Kodaly and Janacek, all of whom did write classical music with a heavy folk influence. I’d be happy to hear more music by the Turkish Five composers in the future.
Swans, black and otherwise
Last up on the program was Beilman and pianist Ellen Hwangbo performing David Ludwig’s Swan Song, a new piece which owes a lot to Schubert’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano–one of the Viennese master’s last completed works. We’ve heard Ludwig at the Summer Festivals before: Pangaea, the premiere of Les Adieux at last year’s festival, the premiere of Berakhah in 2020. They have a long history together, and we’re always happy to hear from him.
Usually I dislike this sort of obvious nod or “re-imagining” of an earlier piece of music. It feels to me like exactly the sort of thing people point to when they say “classical music is dead,” as composers choose to rewrite and idolize the classics rather than create anything new. It seems particularly odd for American musicians to be far more interested in taking influence from Europeans who died centuries ago–instead of, say, the music of contemporary America like hip-hop, EDM, rock and jazz.
When composers do make obvious parallels to the classics, I personally find it more interesting as parody or postmodern deconstruction, such as in Rochberg’s Music for the Magic Theater (which quotes a Mozart divertimento at length before destroying it) or any number of pieces by Alfred Schnittke (who is just insane in a good way). Otherwise there’s a risk of relying on the authority of the older classics to leech away some aesthetic credibility: “hey, doesn’t this remind you of this older piece you already like?” So I tend to listen skeptically to pieces with such overt precursors, thinking to myself before the concert, “we’ll see how this goes…”
Swan Song stands on its own–another great piece from Ludwig. The only obvious hint I got of Schubert’s influence was the serene ending in C major after various stormy climaxes and a furious cadenza. This C major materialized a few different moments before the ending, all the way back to the opening, with its drawn-out violin melody underneath a cloudy piano texture. For most of its duration, I doubt anyone would mistake this piece for a late Classical/early Romantic violin sonata–even at the ending, since you’d never hear Schubert playing a major triad with a #4 and b7. It was a great choice to end the program, and Beilman and Hwangbo’s performance was top-notch, with plenty of dynamic range and tasteful rubato.
The next New@Night is a big one: Andy Akiho’s massive hour-and-a-half Seven Pillars, performed by Sandbox Percussion. Check out Brett Campbell’s preview, and my review next week. It’s happening tonight, if you’re reading this on Tuesday, so act fast.
Also this week is the west coast premiere of CMNW Co-commission Dido Reimagined by Melinda Wagner, text by Stephanie Fleischmann. While this show is not explicitly a New@Night, it is a premiere worth checking out, performed by the always wonderful Dawn Upshaw and the Brentano String Quartet. The new piece is a song cycle/monodrama based on the famous Lament aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, playing with some of the gender and sexual politics of the original piece in its social mileiux versus that of our own. Despite being hundreds of years old the Lament is still a haunting and touching aria that is worth revisiting in our time, and “we’ll see how this goes” when Wagner draws upon her famous source material and turns it into something new. The concert will be at Kaul on the 23rd, and will include various songs by Purcell and his contemporaries (Dowland, Locke, Byrd, et al).
The next few days bring another program that may as well be a New@Night, considering how young the repertoire for sax quartet is: the Sinta Saxophone Quartet’s American Voices. The two concerts (and one free community concert) include a World Premiere CMNW commission by the Chris Rogerson alongside arrangements of Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and music by younger composers John Mackey, Kristin Kuster and Mark O’Connor.