Monday, June 9, 2014

Kent Leslie advocates for contemporary music for horn

Kent Leslie is a teacher and freelance Indianapolis hornist.
Since so much of the theory and practice of classical music involves the works of men (almost invariably) who are long gone from the scene, many musicians relish collaboration with living composers.

Even if no consultation takes place, just knowing that a composer shares some of your own reality can bring vividness and inspiration to the hard work of getting a piece ready for the public. Of course, this means that a musician's comfort zone can't be too narrow. Kent Leslie has a wide one, all right.  Some of it was evident in the recital he gave with Amanda Asplund Hopson Sunday afternoon at Meridian Music in Carmel.

There were a couple of premieres among the six pieces. Concluding the program was Frank Felice's "Honk!" — named for what most of us do with horns as motorists — and it was aptly positioned, with its cheeky energy and idiomatic borrowings from funk and blues music. These are among genuine non-classical interests of both the composer and the recitalist, who was saluted by Felice in oral program notes for both his championship of contemporary composers and his expert knowledge of the music of Alice Cooper.

"Honk!" displayed some tight riffs, plus the rhythmically tense pauses and turnarounds characteristic of the genres it drew inspiration from. It included flashy, smeared horn slides probably in imitation of the electric guitar, as well as percussive effects and fuzzy-bass mimicry on the piano. It was not excessively showy, however, or a forgettable Spike-Jonesy hoot. On first hearing, it came across as an honest, exuberant tribute to the duo's capabilities as well as to its remote aesthetic sources.

The other premiere was a different kind of tribute, reflective of bassoonist-composer Robert Broemel's interest in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, which he traced back to an inspiring high-school German teacher.  His "Buddha," for unaccompanied horn (adapted from its solo-bassoon original), followed the phrasing of the German text in a lyrical manner. The poem provided an impetus for the horn line's strong and weak stresses, nicely distributed over the course of the meditative piece.

Other composers present for the recital also had their say before Leslie performed their works. James Beckel's "Primitive Modern" is a response to 9/11 juxtaposing our technological advancement (symbolized by Leslie's accompaniment, a synthesized recording) with our emotional makeup, with its good and bad consequences. There was some catch-as-catch-can interplay between the two voices, but the expressive edge was naturally given to the horn. Leslie coordinated well with the recording while giving himself expressive latitude.

Jody Nagel spoke with humorous self-effacement of his early "As You Like It," for horn and piano. Modest in ambition, the piece evinced a floating lyricism, grounded in the language of impressionism. It made for a nice "palate freshener" between the mystical "Buddha" and the cheeky "Honk!"

Before intermission, the demonstrative novelty "T. Rex" by Mark Schultz challenged Leslie from the get-go with its high sustained notes before that "Little Feet" movement yielded to its companion, "Big Feet/Fast Feet." Here we got ominous breathing through the horn at the beginning and end, and in between, some thundering menace out of the piano, as the horn more or less represented the reptilian predator's physicality above those approaching footsteps. It was a delightful chamber tone poem in miniature.

A third player joined Hopson and Leslie for Eric Ewazen's "Ballade, Pastorale and Dance," the program's longest work.  Flutist Andrea Raes lent her rounded tone and smoothly deployed energy to the three-movement piece, which seemed gratifyingly written for the three instruments. They worked well together in putting the work across.

The Pastorale movement relied on the positive associations of the countryside as musical convention interprets them. The third-movement "Dance" got off to an oddly European start, with something more indicative of the sort of dance idiom you might expect from an American composer later on. The ambitious opening movement, "Ballade," used a laid-back theme to set the stage for a motoric fast section, which seemed to owe a lot to the finale of Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto. On the whole, while pieces that performers enjoy playing deserve to be programmed, "Ballade, Pastorale and Dance" had too much of a been-there, listened-to-that feeling for me to share in that enjoyment.

Kudos are in order to Leslie for his dedication to bringing to the public music that solidifies and extends his instrument's legacy.