Tuesday, February 23, 2016

At University of Indianapolis, Ronen Chamber Ensemble raises the flag for music as a pathway to knowledge

Music continues to fight for its life in public education, though few of its enemies use the word "frill" anymore. In higher education, music's stature is more secure.

John Berners, composer of "Praeludium"
In the annual collaboration between the Ronen Chamber Ensemble and the University of Indianapolis, the opportunity to put music forward as a branch of knowledge is inescapable. It was more pronounced than ever Monday night in a program called "Science, Math & Music."

With pop culture having pegged music as entertainment only, the art's ancient links to the nature of reality (including the abstract, internally consistent reality of mathematics) are often obscured. Gregory Martin, artistic director of Ronen along with founders David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, was at pains to restore that link as it has been forged from ancient times to the present day.

He wrote a script, chock-full of scholarly references, that was  delivered by Stephen Spicklemire, UIndy professor of physics and astronomy, among a range of musical examples. Martin is an adjunct instructor of piano at the university.

The overall effect was necessarily academic. And the point was underscored elaborately, if not always in a manner that was easy to follow. A two-piano arrangement of "Jupiter" from "The Planets" by Gustav Holst made a grandiose conclusion to the concert, though the uneasy fit of science and art was perhaps unintentionally reinforced.  Holst was inspired by astrology, a specialty that makes any of the science about our solar system's largest planet irrelevant.

The Pythagorean harmonic ratios that Johannes Kepler applied to planetary motion, helpfully detailed on a supplementary handout, showed an intersection of science and music that concerned Holst not at all, as far as I can tell. Visions of orderliness in the universe will always be with us and we certainly benefit from their exploration. But Holst saw Jupiter in temperamental terms, as "The Bringer of Jollity."

In the midst of its jolly energy, the big tune at the center of "Jupiter" has stirred people to put words to it. One set of those words is a favorite Catholic hymn that was thundered out at the recent funeral service for Antonin Scalia, whose 30-year tenure as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court provided many demonstrations of how questionably notions of order may be founded. One man's idea of time-tested order is many other people's idea of narrow-minded inflexibility.

Music finally has to rest upon its emotional appeal. That's what wowed the audience in the "Jupiter" performance by Martin and Jonathan Mann. Earlier, the primary position of order in 20th-century music was represented by a movement from Anton Webern's Quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone, and piano.

Martin's script properly placed Webern's personal, concentrated use of the 12-tone method of composition in the context of nature.  The performance, unfortunately, failed to take advantage of the naturalness of Webern's phrasing, however disjunctive his distribution of pitches may strike the ear. I hear Quartet as a piano quartet, with the other instruments either anticipating or following up on the piano.

This performance — by Martin, along with clarinetist Bellman, violinist Philip Palermo, and tenor  saxophonist Scotty Stepp — interpreted the work as completely heterophonic: Each instrument seemed isolated in its own sphere, four overlapping monologues. The playing sounded well-coordinated and dynamically alert, but missed orientation around the piano, which would have indicated Webern's link to his musical heritage.

The concert had a distinguished new work in the middle. UIndy professor John Berners' "Praeludium" is a well-integrated composition, about 11 minutes long, for a string quartet (divided spatially in pairs) plus flute, clarinet, harp, and piano. Paul Krasnovsky conducted the ensemble. The piece was conceived in homage to the most learned composer of all, J.S. Bach.

Berners' imaginative use of the ensemble, including canonic imitation and other contrapuntal devices, made his homage more than skillful tracery. It was bracing to feel how the texture varied, opening up and closing unpredictably (at least on first hearing). Dynamic and registral extremes seemed well-designed, surprising but not arbitrary. The work's energy calmed near the end, ushering in a contemplative spirit of the kind never far from Bach's artistry, even at its most complex.

Elsewhere, Martin was Jayna Park's partner for a stirring performance of Bela Bartok's "First Rhapsody." The violinist captured the folk-dance rhythms vividly in the two-movement piece, with particularly fiery, incisive playing in the second. In the concert's one solo, the hard-working pianist made a good impression in a more suitable style for him with Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral" (La cathedrale engloutie).

The concert opened with a lively reading of the Rondo from Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio in E-flat major, K. 498. Martin, Bellman and violist Mike Chen lent appropriate contrast to the episodes, and made the climactic return to the rondo theme thrilling. It was a useful reminder of why such a pseudo-scientific idea as "the Mozart effect" could get a foothold before it was exposed as a pleasant whim.