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Mayan Myths, Mysterious Memoirs

New York
Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Peter Norton Symphony Space
04/11/2016 -  
Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival: “Memories, Myths and Dreams”
Russell Platt: Memoir (World Premiere)
Joan Tower: Dumbarton Quintet
Victoria Bond: Dreams of Flying
Robert Xavier Rodriguez: Xochiquetza (New York Premiere)

The Cassatt Quartet: Muneko Otani, Claire Chan (Violins), Sarah Adams (Viola), Elizabeth Anderson (Cello); Ursula Oppens, Steven Beck, Jeff Lankov (Piano), Emilie-Anne Gendron, Chloe Trevor (Violins)

J. Tower, V. Bond (© Samuel A. Dog)

While the series at Symphony Space is called “Cutting Edge”, the music is never confined to that phrases. After all, composers are usually well established, and their audience overwhelmingly collegial, so they need only show their balance of inspiration and experience. Whether that cuts edges or solidifies past reputations is up to the performing artists, who are invariably the best.

Joan Tower is a three-times Grammy-winning artist and amongst America's most prestigious composers. So when the great Ursula Oppens joins the Cassatt Quartet at the piano, one knows that her Dumbarton Quintet will have the best performance possible. The Cassatt Quartet was also on stage to give a soaring performance to Victoria Bond’s Dreams of Flying, and in this case, the sounds in the music were literally cutting edge–with a twist.

Ms. Bond had been commissioned by the Audubon Society, so obviously part of it should have shown how avians flew. Instead, though, this was a biographical very pictorial piece, starting with the Cassatt Quartet never quite getting off the ground. The first movement was called Resisting Gravity, so those instruments advanced and retracted in a series of minor seconds. Ms. Bond wanted them to soar, but they never quite made it until the second movement.

That was titleed Floating, and it was one of Ms. Bond’s extraordinary musical moments. Each instrument of the Cassatt Quartet played glissandi in their highest registers at different times, different places. Yet those soaring squeaks were built into a complex baroque counterpoint. It was jovial enough for the audience to laugh out loud. But the workmanship was sometimes extraordinary.

How, though, would Ms. Bond paint a movement called The Caged Bird Dreams Of The Jungle? She had been inspired to write it during a traffic jam (a droll confession), but I disliked it for prejudicial reasons. The two words which bring tears to my eyes are “Lost Dog”. “Caged Bird”, though is equally doleful. So I hardly felt good hearing the twangs of the cage, as the caged bird tried to build a romantic dream. A clever musical conceit, but awfully depressing.

Since the Audubon Society inexplicably admired even the sad captive bird, my feelings are immaterial.

Joan Tower’s Dumbarton Quintet was the only non-pictorial music of the evening. So, without having to create anything except music, Ms Tower packed endless material into her one-movement 14 minute work. Her inspirations, she said, were Copland and Stravinsky. The inspiration which came out here were from the Bartok Strings and Percussion music. Jagged rhythms contrasted with complex solos by each of the Cassatt Quartet and Ms. Oppens. One felt a confusing counterpoint, but as the Quintet continued, the music broadened out–taking listener with many a surprise, including a few measures unashamedly romantic, abundant with harmonies.

At this first hearing, the structure was hardly evident. Yet the complexity and stunning contrasts were their own reward from this most treasured composer.

R. Platt/R. X. Rodriguez (© Samuel A.Dog)

The first of two violin sonatas was composed by a familiar name to New Yorker readers, as critic and essayist. . His Memoir a world premiere reworking of previous works, could have been called Mystery, since Mr. Platt composed some highly mysterious music.

The mystery started with a conservative violin line and equally conservative piano accompaniment. Except that the piano was in an entirely different key. Bi-tonality is hardly original, but this casual disconnect was neatly disconcerting. So too were the single raindrop notes from the piano as violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron continued on her way. It was a short trenchant work, yet Mr. Platt managed to maintain the ingeniously mystifying measures to the end.

Emotionally, my favorite music last night was Xochiquetza by Robert Xavier Rodriguez. I am ashamed to say that this is the first work of the Texas-born composer I have heard. Especially since Mr. Rodriguez is not only prodigious in his operas, orchestral works, pieces for children and chamber music, but he is reportedly the master of the most eclectic styles.

If Xochiquetza is any example, he is a true master. On a personal feeling, its theme of a Mayan goddess, her lover, her dealings with thunder and rain was immediately attractive, as and I have an adoration for Mayan art in Guatemala and Honduras, not Mexico. (Though the Mayan Empire had no such divisions until the Spanish barbarians entered.)

Musically, though, the work was lush, rich, enjoyed never-ending violin and piano difficulties which fit directly in with the pictures of hummingbirds, thunder, Tristan-style passion and Xochiquetza’s gifts of dance.

Comparisons are odious, but this music could have been written by a latter-day Szymanowski. Fellow Texan Chloe Trevor’s shimmering violin took intricate fingering with sensuous enjoyment, Jeff Lankow’s trills and piano runs a glittering accompaniment. And so virtuosic was the music that Ms. Trevor’s solo cadenza was hardly necessary.

Like Szymanowski, enchanted with Arabian climes, Mr. Rodriguez folded his old Mayan tune–apparently the oldest music of the Hemisphere–with an inevitability and a blazing patina.

That was, if not “Cutting Edge”, a glorious gorgeous creation.

Harry Rolnick



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