Friday, June 20, 2014

New-music ensemble from Buffalo enlivens Eidson-Duckwall Hall at Butler University

Wooden Cities' feeling for musical tradition extends as far back in its programming as Luciano Berio and Charles Ives, judging from what the ensemble out of Buffalo, N.Y., offered at Butler University Thursday evening.

And that's just fine, because this seems to be a genuine new-music ensemble, with a preponderance of its repertoire having been produced in our young century. As a self-described collective, its personnel boundaries go beyond the eight musicians who played here. But the concert presumably got to the pith of Wooden Cities nonetheless, including a generous representation of the group's composers.

"Heptagram," the program's newest piece, is a 2014 composition by pianist Michael McNeill. One of Thursday's five works using everybody, it posed the yin of speaking voices against the yang of instrumentation. Its steady pulse helped to emphasize the complementarity of the opposed timbral realms.

Other new full-ensemble works ranged from Michael Pisaro's "Why," aptly quizzical and about as long as a left-turn traffic light, to Matt Sargent's hypnotic "Tide," for trombone, violin, voice, cello and guitar, plus electronics. The piece required immense patience to play (no doubt) and to listen to (for sure), but was an ultimately rewarding exploration of soft, understated, overlapping ascending and descending phrases fused together. When Claude Debussy was writing  "La Mer," he probably had dreams like this at night and laughed about them in the morning.

A Wooden Cities performance, with Butler-educated Zane Merritt in left foreground.
The more assertive "Dilemma of the Meno," by Steve McCaffery, began with a spoken reference to the Socratic dialogue "Meno" and soon became an exposition of the statement "Unity can only announce itself in fragments." And so unity was approached through various fits of fragmentation — short-term blasts and burbles, always far from pastiche, but with at least one conspicuous quotation — the oboe's abbreviated proclamation of the main Scherzo theme of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony.

Oboist Megan Kyle opened the concert with a solo (undergirded by an electronic-acoustic sustained B) by the Italian master Berio — Sequenza VII (1969). The piece, with its blend of blips, chirps, rasps, split tones, virtuoso flourishes and staccato aloofness, made for a great introduction to the program.

Better, in fact, than Wooden Cities director Brendan Fitzgerald's welcome at the start: He said if we didn't like a piece, that was OK, and if we liked it, that was OK, too. A musician who openly professes such indifference to an audience's response doesn't inspire much confidence. Fortunately, the performances that followed made clear the band's emotional and intellectual investment in its music.

There were three duos to savor, for instance: The miniature "Koral 8" for oboe and voice, by Jeffrey Stadelman made for a nice palate cleanser after "Tide." "The Reputation," for electric guitar and cello, featured the guitarist-composer, Zane Merritt, who has a master's degree from Butler. It showcased contrasts of texture and musical idiom — with hints of tango and sentimental balladry juxtaposed with toccata-like vehemence from both instruments. Virtuosity will forever occupy a pedestal, no matter what the musical language; as a fan of Franz Liszt, I applaud that.

The group's hard-working cellist, Tyler Bordon, was also featured (with violinist Evan Courtin) in hornist Nathan Heidelberger's "Occasionally, music," a stately, reflective piece with a kind of slow-motion hocketing of non-vibrato instrumental lines that contributed to the oddly medieval impression it made.

Bordon was also front and center in Merritt's extravagant "Hot Cola," a solo rhythmically intricate and loaded with extended techniques, all deftly applied. Near-the-bridge playing and left-hand pizzicato paved the way for such tricky episodes as using a pick on the strings and exploiting the cello as a vehicle for hand percussion.

The finale displayed Wooden Cities' historical reach back to a musical precursor of its adventurous spirit. Vocalist-trombonist Ethan Hayden's arrangement of Charles Ives' "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" led the whole band into glory both instrumentally and vocally. The performance was an apt celebration of the original work's centennial, as well as an exhibition of Wooden Cities' exuberance, daring, and attention to detail. I liked it, realizing that's just as OK as if I hadn't liked it.