Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Happy reunion: Ronen Chamber Ensemble meets UIndy's Faculty Artist Series

The  sizable 20th-century ensemble pieces that ended each half of Monday night's collaboration between University of Indianapolis and the Ronen Chamber Ensemble presented a polarity that might be found throughout the history of music.

On the one hand, the exploratory, extroverted muse of Luciano Berio was represented by his "Folk Songs" (1964). On the other, there was the focused expression of singular personality in Francis Poulenc's Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet (1931). It's almost tempting to put forward an analogy to the ancient Greek aphorism made popular by the 20th-century thinker Isaiah Berlin: "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing."

The fey charms of Poulenc's music don't sit easily with the idea of knowing "one big thing," but the variety he pursued thrives within a small range, bound on one side by his religious devotion, with its touch of sentimentality, and on the other by his insouciance and boulevardier brio. He made those discrepancies work within a personal style; to his credit, Poulenc thus can be said to know one big thing, and know it thoroughly.
Berio group (minus percussionists Jack Brennan and Terence Mayhue and cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman): Vu Nguyen, Emilee Drumm, Heaven Fan, Tamara Thweatt, David Bellman, Mitzi Westra.

Despite the stylistic focus, the sextet turns up one surprise after another — the total held within prescribed limits, however. Each movement (especially the first) has sharply contrasting material to explore, set amid those side-slipping tonalities and cheeky dissonances that make the Poulenc manner seem meandering, even random, but turn out to establish a jaunty hedgehog-like purposefulness. The piece was brightly performed by Gregory Martin, piano, with the conventional instrumentation of the wind quintet: flute (Tamara Thweatt), oboe (Pamela Ajango), clarinet (David Bellman), bassoon (Mark Ortwein), and horn (Darin Sorley).

For a composer to communicate a personality may be more important than evidence that new terrain must be explored. Poulenc thus survives within an enchanting eddy off the modernist mainstream. Berio is more a part of that mainstream, but he never sounds settled within even the new conventions of his time. He was a fox. "Folk Songs" satisfied me much more than the Sextet; it simply draws more deeply from the well-nourished iconoclasm I find exciting about 20th-century music.

In this work, Berio not only paid tribute to his flesh-and-blood muse, the soprano Cathy Berberian, but also drew his selected folk songs from the aesthetic of recordings more than actual field work of the kind for which Bartok and Kodaly were famous. Further evidence that he was not interested in anthropological authenticity is that two of the songs in the middle have his original melodies. The instrumental settings suggest both the uniqueness of folk ensembles and the unconventional chamber-music combinations of high modernism, filtered through a monaural recording ambiance.

On Monday, Vu Nguyen led a lively, glinting performance of the suite. Berio's choices in the accompaniment grab the attention without detracting from the vocal solo. Harp is especially prominent, with the other instruments showcased to varying degrees and with an uncanny rightness of blend. The instrumental codas always sound like the songs' last (and best) word.

Mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra invested each song with appropriate expressiveness (though the absence of texts, or even descriptions of them, withheld meaning to a significant extent). I would have liked a more nasal, almost forced and nonclassical quality in a few of the Mediterranean songs and the concluding Azerbaijan Love Song. Remember that Bulgarian women's choir that was such a hit years ago? Something similar in solo terms might have been more idiomatic here and there, even though Westra conveys pretty convincingly everything she puts her voice to. The initial two songs in English of Appalachian provenance set the stage for the kind of sincerity and plainness that seem to spark Berio on his merry way with this deep-grained material.

The program also included a Ronen commission in its first performance. Matthew Bridgham's "Avon Yard" directs the quartet
A view of the Avon railyard from the Ronen's visit there.
of Ronen co-founders David Bellman, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, cello, together with Martin and violinist Joana Genova,  to vary their sounds from unpitched to "somewhat pitched" to "clearly pitched" in evoking the CSX railyard in Avon, Indiana. The quartet's members visited the railyard as part of their preparation for a work calling for "guided improvisation."

The 12-minute piece must be the most intimate, subdued evocation of railroad matters ever attempted in music: No "Pacific 231" here. More like Michael Colgrass' unrailroad-like "As Quiet As," but less self-conscious. It's a loosely assembled soundscape of cars trundling slowly amid the yard's other mechanical sounds, all at the hushed end of the sound spectrum, culminating in a lulling medley of pitched fragments — a novelty well-positioned on this program.

The concert opened with Arvo Pärt's "Fratres," probably the Estonian composer's most famous work. It's both durable and fashionable in a personalized spiritual manner. It exists in several settings, evoking a monastic procession with a repeated theme subject to both simple and fancy variation. Genova and Martin were the simpatico partners in a performance that gained assurance after the violinist's somewhat ragged string-crossings in the first part. The varied articulation called for later was more stably achieved. This is one of those pieces in which, if the audience gets the impression that one or more of the performers is working really hard, the desired effect is lost.

I don't know about Bridgham, having heard only "Avon Yard," but Pärt is definitely a hedgehog.

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