Friday, October 11, 2013

Solo acts (with an exception or two) make up University of Indianapolis program at Wheeler Arts

John Berners
A thirty-year span of new music, with nothing much in the way of ensemble to spread the focus around, puts a high demand on an audience's attention.  Even when there's humor and theatricality involved, what the University of Indianapolis and guest performers  presented Thursday night as "Working Without a Net: Unaccompanied New Music by Indy Composers" amounted to kind of a staring contest for ears.

Here's why: One  performer (usually) onstage, pitted against the ambivalent solitude of each listener in the Wheeler Arts Community Theater in Fountain Square. A rapt audience deserves credit for making possible the most undisturbed presentation of this music's laserlike focus on the navigational and communicative skills of one musician at a time.

Though  the six-work program was organized with a keen sense of pace, contrast and flow, I felt a distinct falling off of quality and freshness in what I heard after intermission. A high level of performance was maintained throughout, but the first three compositions were more engaging than the second three. I can confidently dismiss the possibility that my tolerance for music of this sort doesn't hold for much more than a half-hour.

Let's take first the two pieces by John Berners, associate professor of music at UIndy: "Study on Peter," the concert's newest work, is a virtuoso turn for soprano through a fragmented and embellished setting of Peter's denial of Christ in the New Testament: "I do not know what you are talking about. I do not even know the man."

Jennifer Goltz, an experienccd new-music proponent  based in Ann Arbor, sang the work with adroit vocal command. Berners fragments the the text and deliberately interrupts its sense, partly through episodes that get tangled among miscellaneous lip and throat noises andpuns : "do not know," for example, is treated as both "Donut?" and "Noah?" The question marks attached to such bizarre distortions of the text reflect the anxiety and guilt of formative Christianity's most famous liar.

"Study on Peter" presents steep challenges to a singer's ability to communicate and an audience's desire to understand. It made good use of being far-fetched at times, especially when this feminized Peter attempts to change the subject and dodge the hard suspicion that he is closely associated with the condemned Jesus. It was enough on the edge of overreaching to be thoroughly exciting to hear, especially when so brilliantly performed.

Berners' other work ended the program. Liltingly titled "Moonrays on Marin," it focuses on baroque flute, played by Tamara Thweatt, in tribute to French composer Marin Marais (1656-1728).  Somewhat more tangential to the instrumentation is the composer's recollection of Marin County, California, "a nice place to be in the evening," as the composer says in a program note.

Playing modern flutes on either side of Thweatt were Anne Reynolds and Mihoko Watanabe. They usually added wispy, often toneless figures to the central voice of the baroque flute, which was given poised scraps of melody consonant with the period when the instrument flourished. The supplemental flutists also had to do some foot-stomping to punctuate the agitated passages required of them. Berners suggests in his note that competition between the soloist and the auxiliary pair drives the work, but whatever the latter did seemed merely to encourage and prolong the impervious monologue of the central instrument. The work was imposing when it ought to have been engaging; it lasted about 10 minutes, but seemed longer.

Similar contrasts of effectiveness struck me in the other composer represented by two works, Andrew Mead. Thanks to the rare virtuosity of Goltz, perhaps, his setting of an Amy Clampitt poem, "Let the Air Circulate,"was thoroughly winning. Mead gives the soprano phrases that mimic the sometimes obsessive detail typical of Clampitt's poetry. The phrases have individuality without suggesting they want little to do with their neighbors. This is quite representative of the poet's finicky manner, which tends to charm in a sneaky, cumulative way. Mead's self-possessed vocal line worked the same kind of magic in Goltz's performance.

His "Rhapsody for Solo Flute," the concert's oldest work, was played in a whirlwind of phrases typically disjunctive in shape but smoothed through lots of legato playing. An abundance of flutter-tonguing presumably stood for the joys of rhapsodizing. Playing with a steely tone one wouldn't want to hear in much other music, Watanabe showed polished mastery of Mead's interpretive and technical demands. 

The composers represented just once each contrasted as well in effectiveness. Thweatt played  Michael Schelle's "Subwoofer" in the concert's first half. Schelle can be counted on for giving an often humorous theatrical spin to specific musical situations. There isn't a generic bone in his body.

So, how do you call attention to the absence of interplay with another musician in an unaccompanied work?  By having the soloist seem to question the audience response — with unexpected pauses, quizzical facial expressions, moving about the stage and then off it. The effect of Thweatt's poised, comic performance was to tease the loneliness of the unaccompanied player of a single-line instrument. In the realm of peripatetic music for solo flute, "Subwoofer" probably reigns supreme.

In the corresponding middle position in the concert's second half came Patrick Long's "Shadow Steps."  Works for "live" performer and what used to be called tape, here and now "digital audio,"  outlived their usefulness late in the last century; you don't hear much about Mario Davidovsky these days.

Such pieces represented the triumph of cleverness over the nuanced rewards of performer interaction. In an odd sense, "Shadow Steps" stands the point of this program on its head. That is to say, when you have a live performer responsible for coordinating with an inflexible partner, it's not so much a case of the human being "working without a net" as working without even a smidgen of freedom. Headset-wearing Kurt Fowler played his skinny, sleek electric cello with commitment and almost flawless pitch, and the likewise amplified sounds that gave him a run for his virtuoso money mimicked the sonorities of an instrument one would rather have heard: the piano. It was like John Henry and the steam drill harnessed to a modernist esthetic, only this time the contest ends in a tie.

In sum, a program of mixed pleasures, worth presenting under an academic aegis but probably not ready for prime time. The pleasures offered by such concerts are probably not designed to be equally rich, so on those terms,"Working Without a Net" succeeded.

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