I have never experienced a hurricane, but composer Ian Guthrie has. Guthrie survived the 2017 Category 5 Hurricane Irma, which hit 180 miles per hour at one point. A year later, he reacted to his experience by writing The Tempest Long Foretold, and that piece fit nicely into the theme of Fear No Music’s Legacies II concert (March 20), which explored the effect of the environment on music. The program, presented at The Old Church, included arresting pieces by Angélica Négron, Tonia Ko, Aaron Jay Kernis, Katherine Balch, and Beethoven.
Guthrie is also a graduate of FNM’s Young Composers Project, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. YCP sparked him to pursue composition, leading to a Doctorate in Music from Florida State University, where he studied with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and others. Guthrie now teaches music at Calvary University in Kansas City.
Performed by violist Kenji Bunch and pianist Monica Ohuchi – the husband-wife duo who also co-honcho FNM as artistic and executive directors – The Tempest Long Foretold unfolded with edgy calmness before swelling into a sonic storm and finally receding to a calm again. The piece started with Bunch playing under the raised lid of the piano, which seemed to mix in with vibrations from the piano. Bunch used a variety of extended techniques with Ohuchi to create glassy, smooth sounds that also had a fragmentary quality–until Ohuchi lowered the boom with a terrific forte and, with Bunch, created a wild sonic collage that subsided to a state similar to the beginning of the piece with Bunch playing under the piano lid.
Next came Négron’s Marejada, a string quartet that evoked a scene at the beach in her native Puerto Rico. Négron wrote the piece during the pandemic so that the players could perform it from different locations during a lockdown situation. So, for FNM’s performance, cellist Nancy Ives took position at center stage while violinist Inés Voglar Belgique stood behind the audience on one side of the hall, violist Bunch on the other, and violinist Keiko Araki at back part of the center aisle.
Someone started a recording of waves at the seashore and Ives began strumming. The others gradually joined her, strumming their instruments, but in another section another player might start a phrase and then the other players would react in a similar fashion. Towards the end, the instruments were put aside and each player tapped a small bell that faded peacefully into the sounds of waves at the seashore.
After intermission, Michael Roberts lightened things up a bit with Tonia Ko’s Breath, Contained for bubble wrap and live electronics. In this piece, Roberts tapped at a layer of blue bubble wrap that he had placed on a table. Underneath the bubble wrap were sensors that fed to a program in a nearby laptop. So, as he struck the bubble wrap with his fingers – often in a syncopated rhythm – he created all sorts of sounds: twangy, skittery, smooth like sand being poured out, scratchy, static-like, and zingy-zither-like. It was a very entertaining, yet brief number – and no bubble wrap was punctured.
This was followed by Air, a flute quintet by Aaron Jay Kernis, who originally wrote the piece for violin and piano and revised it later for many instrumental combinations. Flutist Amelia Lukas collaborated with the FNMers (Voglar Belgique, Araki, Bunch, and Ives) in this lovely piece. Its opening featured lots of sustained notes, suggesting a gentle bucolic setting. That atmosphere changed during an agitated section, but things settled down, punctuated by phrases for Lukas that seemed to periodically bubble up. After a pause, Ives introduced a melodic passage that was handed off to Lukas and the piece gracefully culminated in harmonic bliss.
Kernis was one of Katherine Balch’s teachers, and–staying thematically with the idea of breath–the FNM String Quartet performed Balch’s With Each Breathing. Balch has stated:
This piece is an appropriation and reinterpretation/obfuscation of some of the sounds and gestures from the inner movements of Beethoven’s Opp. 130 & 131. It deals with the expression of breath through music (inhaling, exhaling, panting, pranayama, etc.), the strength in fragility, and my love and fragmented memories of Beethoven’s late Quartets. The title, With Each Breathing, is taken from e.e.cumming’s poem, somewhere i have never traveled.
Many little pauses, extended techniques, tapping bows, bouncing bows off the strings, and pizzicatos, and glissandos combined in a hazy, fragmented way suggest the feeling that Balch described. But I didn’t get the connection to Beethoven right away because I was trying to read the program notes from my cell phone. I think that the flow of the program would have been stronger if one of the FNM members would have just talked about it for a couple of minutes.
Fittingly, the concert concluded with the “Cavatina” (movement III) from Beethoven’s String Quartet, No 13 in B-flat, opus 130. The FNM String Quartet elicited the strength and beauty of Beethoven’s music with great sensitivity.
In a way, it was rather unorthodox to wind up the concert on a somber note, but FNM is well-noted for its adventuresome spirit; so what started off with a hurricane ended on a quiet vista.