A concert and a bit of theatre

The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble (VCME)
On Saturday night, October 13, I went to the recital Hall at the St. Michael's Colleges McCarthy Arts Center to see a performance given by the VCME. The concert was prefaced by an unusually formatted and very informative pre-concert lecture. The participants were three of the composers represented on the program: Allen Shawn, David Ross Gunn, and Middlebury College's Peter Hamlin, who served as the master of ceremonies. The pre-concert program was marked by a discussion principally about how non-composers react to the term contemporary music (conclusion: there is no single conceptual model any longer, no characteristic sound or shape or even vocabulary). Since this particular concert touched on quite a few varying approaches, both conceptual and concrete, to the creation of current music, the question framed the real circumstance of the concert very well. The oldest piece of music was composed in 1991/1992, the most recent in 2008 (curiously by the oldest composer, Elliott Carter, who in December of this year will turn 99, and who is still composing for varied musical media). Three of the pieces particularly merited great concentration and received fine performances by the Viente Winds (Rachel Elliott, bassoon; Berta Frank, flute; and Steve Klimowski, clarinet) assisted by pianist Annemieke Spoelstra. They were works by Allen Shawn, Peter Hamlin, and David Ross Gunn. The Shawn piece, written in 2006, Three Nightscapes, is written in a slow-fast-slow trilogy of movements and was a fascinating piece of music: it was traditional in its overall shape, yet the vocabulary was quite modern. The interior movement was helter-skelter in its shape, scherzo-like, while the last movement had an architectural feeling to it, the equivalent of walking into a contemporary building whose interior was entirely classical in its appearance and shape (during the playing of this movement my mind touched upon one of my favorite W. H. Auden poems, his tripartite poem on the death of the poet W. B. Yeats, and particularly the final section that begins with the words Earth receive an honored guest ...). I really admired the work and was moved by it. Hamlin had two pieces on the program, one in which he participated himself as accordionist. The work, however, that I really appreciated, was a five-movement work entitled The Art of War, which had its premiere on Friday night in Montpelier, and the second playing here on Saturday. The composer was obviously moved by his reading of his very short treatise on military strategy by the ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu, and each of the five segments had a sentence from that little booklet which inspired the form of each part of the composition. Unlike the Astor Piazzolla-like composition that preceded this five-part work, what came through the music was a deeper-darker emotion and a much more formalized conceptual approach to the shape of each movement. Once more the Auden poem came unbidden into my mind as I listened. The architecture of the piece both movement by movement and the architectonics of the overall piece were both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Gunn's composition, The Conchoid of Nicomedes, also proved satisfying both conceptually and emotionally, although, as often is the case in Gunn's work, there is a feeling in this auditor that he is watching a high-wire act that can be successful or not. I'm happy to report that this one is very successful, and, in fact, enjoyable (it is curious to this auditor how the ability to follow a line of argument or composition can produce emotional enjoyment as well as conceptual appreciation). It started off with a gesture that reminded this auditor of the work of Gustav Holst, particularly his piece entitled The Planets, moved to 1920s Germany for a touch of Kurt Weill (notably present in the piano figures and rhythms) moving through several other styles of composition and ending up with a brief exposure to the opening Holst-like music. As would only be appropriate, the circularity of the work fits at least one meaning of the word conchoid. David Volpe's composition for piano, Goodbye and keep cold, the opening line and title of a Robert Frost poem that inspired the composition (which was read to us by Hamlin before the piece was played), is a well thought out piece. Volpe was the youngest composer on the program. The work demanded a good deal of the pianist, and she acquitted herself admirably, as she did throughout the evening. The piece by Elliott Carter for bass clarinet solo entitled Steep Steps was interesting, but needed another hearing. The work that opened the program, David Lang's Press Release for bassoon solo, demanded a great deal of the bassoonist. It is a type of composition that skirts disaster on every page because of the demands put on the player, and there was a bit of an air of hairbreadth scapes in the more imminently breachable deadly passages, but in the end both the composition and the player acquitted themselves well. It needed a second hearing, perhaps one that was purely aural, where the performer could not be seen, which is to say that this particular high-wire act seemed on the verge of slipping into thin air not musically, but performer-wise. It was a highly plausible performance in the most concrete meaning of that word, and I joined in the applause at the completion of the work. It was a singularly successful concert. Fairfax Community Theatre Company
On Sunday afternoon, October 14, I was at the Brick Meeting House in Westford, VT, for the last of a series of performances of the play Greater Tuna, a vehicle in which two men play ten parts each. The play is consistently funny both situationally and in the writing. Although some of the laugh-getting depends heavily on Northern prejudices about Texas and some Texans, a good deal of it is based on human nature, and about people not achieving what they want to achieve. There are lots of clich_ however, and they bring dependable laughs. The two actors cast, Peter Harrington and Kevin Christopher, do a bang up job of impersonating these various characters. Although they have little time to change characters, they do so with total believability -- and the help of some dressers backstage to help them change their clothing as rapidly as possible. There were many highlights in their acting, but I won't tease you with a long list of them, because the run of the play is over. Suffice it to say that if you see their names as members of the cast of a play, you can be certain that their parts will be done exactly correctly. They got every laugh that they deserved, and they got a standing ovation at the end of the performance. The play was directed by Bob Martin and the costume design was by Jen Martin, who had to come up with clothing that was appropriate but which could be whisked on an off. Second applause for Kevin Christopher, who also created the sound design for the play. Next up for FCTC: An O. Henry Christmas in December.

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