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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Concert Review: Put Them Together, and What Have You Got?

The American Modern Ensemble plays SubCulture.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Samples of an electrocardiogram (pictured) were used in the New York premiere of
Robert Paterson's I See You at SubCulture.
The Chamber Music of America conference is in town and New York is thrumming to the sound of scraped, plucked, bowed and strummed fiddles of all shapes and sizes. On Thursday night in the subterranean depths of SubCulture, that fabulous concert venue tucked neatly under Bleecker Street, the American Modern Ensemble hosted a concert dubbed String Theory: a marathon showcase of modern chamber music, featuring three other chamber ensembles and a stack of world premieres.

The AME is celebrating ten years this year under the guidance of husband-and-wife team Robert and Victoria Paterson. The ensemble opened the concert with the new work by composer Jacob Bancks that lent the program its name. String Theory is a sextet with the addition of harp and double bass, instruments that provide the traditional quartet with a propulsive forward drive. Influenced by Gershwin and Ravel, this melodic, entertaining work was the perfect curtain-raiser, preparing the audience for the long evening ahead.

Sidney Boquiren's new work a mirror dimly... followed, a bold quintet that opened with percussive "Bartok snaps" in the low instruments. As the liner notes provided revealed, Mr. Boquiren's work was inspired by the recent incidents of police brutality and retaliatory murder that have scarred New York recently, and the "snaps" may indicate the sound of gunfire. This was searing, serialized music, written in tone-rows generated from the names of the recent victims, an intense and dark mini-masterpiece.

The PUBLIQuartet took the stage next, playing three movements of Breakaway, a composition by Jessie Montgomery that provides melodic instructions as well as opportunity for considerable free-form improvisation by the players. Keening, warbling violins imitated the sound of frantic, stimulated songbirds, as the players moved through the three complex movements, by turns ethereal, chugging and beautifully drawn. The players followed with their own Bird in Paris, an improvisatory jazz piece played without music stands, that merged Claude Debussy-style impressionism with the quick-footed bebop of sax man Charlie Parker.

The JACK Quartet was next for the evening's toughest work: John Zorn's The Dead Man. Thirteen brief, dense movements had the JACK players imitating the screams of the damned, the clatter of an industrial metal works, even the crash of hockey players into the boards as the crowd roared. In the most interesting movement Meditation, the players traded off on a keening single note, with one musician playing it as the others whipped their bows through the air, creating a whoosh of sound that was surprisingly soothing.

These dense, challenging nuggets are not remotely easy to listen to, with some sounding as if the instruments had been fed to a wood chipper. However, there was a certain joy and precision in how each of these works were executed by this remarkable ensemble. This was also a Zornian warm-up for the JACKs, as the quartet plans to play the composer's complete string quartets this year.

Far more appealing was Chinary Ung's work Spiral X "In Memoriam", played by San Francisco's Del Sol Quartet. With each player wearing head mikes, Spiral X featured the Del Sol players using head mikes, incorporating whistles, songs, shouts and spoken word in a dense multi-lingual text that kept the four players in a taut ensemble. Mr. Ung's work was inspired by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in his native Cambodia, and the juxtaposition of Southeast Asian melodic ideas with jarring chords and the vocal text proved at once jarring and oddly comforting to those who remember those atrocities. A superb piece that deserves greater exposure.

The same could be said for Dream in White on White, a 1992 work for chamber orchestra by the Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams. Mr. Adams won the Pulitzer Prize last year for Become Ocean, and this work led off the second half of the concert. It was played by a "Frankenstein" orchestra assembled for the occasion from members of the four musical groups in the concert's first half. Slow glacial chords were cracked and broken by the intervention of the solo harp, dissolving into a series of antiphonal passages featuring the AME quartet player working as a group and answered by the rest of the ensemble.

The concert ended with Mr. Paterson's own I See You, inspired by the composer's own visit to his father in an Intensive Care Unit. For this piece, Mr. Paterson sampled hospital chatter, the hissing rush of a ventilator, the pulse of an electrocardiogram and heartbeats of himself and his own child. Using these samples as an electronic pulse, the musicians sallied forth, spinning textured webs of sound over the steady rhythm. A rapid central section echoed the emergency of an EKG failure, as the beeps became frantic, going to flatline until order was restored. The work ended quietly, with the heartbeat samples fading away to silence but never ceasing.

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