Thursday, May 13, 2010

Concert review: Composers' Salon 5-7-2010

The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!” For info at

The concert began with its lengthiest piece, a set of four songs about spring, in Latin, by Gavin Borchert. Gavin played the piano and Hope Wechkin sang soprano for these remarkably lyrical numbers that take the song form back to its roots: folk material and the early Romanticists (think Schubert). Very pretty. The second song was particularly worth noting, with its strumming guitar-like accompaniment, long melodic line, and a series of unexpected (and transcendent) modulations at the end. The last two songs were shorter; the third used no sustain pedal, and the last brought in piano material from the first. Gavin had stated, before playing, that this was a work in progress, and that there will be two more songs, so probably they will bring the cycle to a more satisfying conclusion.

Next up: six piano miniatures by David Paul Mesler. David played the piano for these, and he announced beforehand that they were based on numerology, were written specifically for this concert, and that each was based on the name of a person associated with the concert (i.e. the other composers) or the Composers Salon itself. Each name was turned into numbers, subjected to various mathematical formulae, then transformed into notes. Such mathematical music can be tricky to pull off: think serialism, which at its best produced scintillating webs of sound but at its worst was little more than so many annoying random notes. However difficult, these piano miniatures came off well: full of energy, intense rhythmic and harmonic interest, and a surprising amount of groove, they reminded me of the last twenty or so Mikrokosmos pieces of Bartok or the more up-tempo moments of Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis. David is also quite the pianist, easily capable of Lisz or Corea. A lesser technique would stumble all over these pieces, whereas David made them sound effortless, with a bravura finish (and a lot of staccato, often in an extremely fast tempo).

The last piece on this part of the concert was “Rondo on Ishmael’s Reveries” by Tim Huling. This is the Ishmael in Moby Dick; as Tim explained before the piece, much of Melville’s tale is the ruminations of this protagonist. The piece, another piano work, is reflections on these ruminations, and rather Impressionist in nature (interrupted by a humorous stop-and-start dance that represents Kweekweg). In general, a mellow piece, not plagued by Moby Dick’s sense of foreboding, and a suitable conclusion to the first half of the concert.

The second half was entirely different. The winners of a junior composers’ contest presented their works – all first place (for different age groups). Because these were minors (the oldest was fifteen) and I did not obtain permission from their teachers, I will not list their names here. I will, however, mention each piece briefly. “Lots of Things are Beautiful” was by a nine-year old; a lyrical song in a rather Broadway style. The boy played it on piano while his dad sung with a karaoke machine. Quite pretty, and surprisingly mature (though the singing did sound like singing with a karaoke machine). I composed when I was nine, but I don’t think it was nearly as good as this. “Suite in D Minor”, played by its twelve-year old composer, was a set of four short Baroque piano pieces. “Political Suite” was written (by a fifteen-year old) during the last political campaign and played (on a boom box) by a symphonic band – probably from the composer’s school – which couldn’t be booked for the concert. Fun piece, though. The particular use of dissonance against Souza-like marches was intended to represent disagreement in the political arena, but also reminded me of Ives, or, perhaps more accurately, what Mahler might have written had he born in the United States rather than in Germany. Lastly, there was a “String Quartet in E Minor”, by another fifteen-year old, and played (rather timidly) by a teenaged quartet. This was a lyrical piece with hints of minimalism (think Glass over Grieg). Before playing, Tom Baker (organizer of the Composers’ Salons and MC at the concert) mentioned that the title on the written score was “A String Quartet That I Wrote”, which the audience all agreed was a better title.

So that was the Composers’ Salon for May, 2010; all in all a pretty good concert (the pieces by the junior composers were gems in particular). Something that surprised me, however, was its unexpected lack of “contemporary” music. Every piece was tonal and most were lyrical, with very little dissonance, almost as if these composers were beginning the twenty-first century by rejecting most of the twentieth. This of course is a stylistic comment that has nothing to do with the quality of the music, but at previous Salons there have been a variety of styles and I would have preferred at least one piece that celebrates the spaces between the notes in the manner of Stockhausen or Takemitsu.

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