Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Empyrean Ensemble

Professor Andrew Frank was honored on Sunday at a concert, 'Night Music,' by the UC Davis Empyrean Ensemble. Not only did the program---in Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre---include performances of two of Mr. Frank's 21st century compositions but also works, by other composers, that represented the 35-years he has been a member of the UCD music department. This 'Night Music' could not be confused with slumber songs. As Kurt Rohde, co-director with Laurie San Martin, explained in his introduction, this would be night music for grown-ups.

The concert was musically and theatrically appealing. Grown-ups being offered such an involving and exciting experience? Even in restrospect, a thrill remains.

Au bout de la nuit, Mr. Frank's Nocturne, opened the program, and his Matinee d'Ivresse was the closing work. In between was a show-stopper, double-bassist Michel Taddei's musical and gestural performance of Jacob Druckman's 'Valentine' (1969); then a remarkable ensemble work, George Crumb's 'Night of the Four Moons' from the same year; Arlene Zallman's Variations for Piano on a Villanella by Marenzio (1992); and Andy Tan's 'Madiola' (2006) for viola and piano.

The Nocturne, composed for the Empyrean Ensemble first in 2001 and revised in 2006, sounds like the music of imagined woodlands, whether the composer's or mine, I don't know, but the music at times evokes birdcalls, gentle winds or trembling leaves. With Stacey Pelinka, flute, and Florian Conzetti and Loren Mach, percussion, the mood ranged from bright to melancholy and the interaction from affectionate to argumentative. The trio sometimes became a duet, with flute seeming separate from percussion, briefly dominant. How does music of nature end? As it's imagined anyway, it can simply, abruptly, stop.

The Nocturne looks back, it seemed to me, to Mr. Frank's earlier work. In decided contrast, his Matinee d'ivresse has its focus on the music as it is to be played here and now. It celebrates the instruments: flute (Tod Brody; clarinet (Peter Josheff); violin (Terrie Baune); cello (Leighton Fong); percussion (Chris Froh) and piano (Karen Rosenak).

Not all instruments were equal---the flute and its frequent partner the clarinet took the lead---but in Mr. Frank's through-composed plan, every instrument had at least one solo and also played in combinations. The full-voiced sections near the end were particularly striking, but I don't have a word for the effect. Each voice was still too independently audible, not only because of differences in tonality and resonance but also because of timing and even pitch, to call their joining harmonious. To maintain a voice while still performing together: Mr Frank, in his attention to instruments, is still creating evocative music---perhaps an exhilarating, but realistic, view of the world today.

The other new work, Mr. Tan's 'Madiola,' suited Ellen Ruth Rose and Karen Rosenak so well that it could have been written for this excellent viola-piano duo. Initially, the piano is the rhythmic instrument while the viola is the melodist, but the roles soon reverse. The fast opening is followed by a meditative second section. But Mr. Tan is good at compression, or perhaps shorthand. One hardly has time to become thoughtful before he takes his audience to a third section marked by leaps and volume and speed. He finally seems to reduce the melody to two notes, giving those to the viola. From repeated single notes to a short melody that expands and back to single notes again: the piece seems almost one of musical evolution and decline.

If the 21st century music ruefully reflects today's world, George Crumb's work from 1969 magically recalls the Apollo 11 flight and is full of longing, wonder and moments of sheer delight. The origin of instruments, from Asia to Africa, makes this music for the world. The vocal part is incredible---Katharine Tier, alto---and the thumb piano (mbira)---Chris Froh, percussion---has an important role. With Karla Lemon conducting, the musicians, in addition to Ms. Tier and Mr. Froh, were Tod Brody, alto flute/piccolo; Leighton Fong, electric cello;

and Brendan Evans, banjo.

From the opening La Luna Esta Muerta, Muerta, Ms. Tier's remarkable voice captured not just the ear but the soul. She sounded plaintive and sorrowful against flute, banjo and cello, and her voice was a whisper against the flute at the end. Cuando Sale La Luna opened with a tiny kitten cry from the cello. A melody, rising by short leaps, began with the flute and was taken by the voice, perhaps less immaculately clear than with the opening, and ended in a fading whistle. The third verse, Otro Adan Oscuro Esta Sonando, opens with finger piano and piccolo and a voice. Soon there are more voices, childlike, the finger piano and other percussive instruments, and always a sustained cello. The last verse, in which the child cries out to the moon to fly away (Huye, Luna, Luna, Luna), had the musicians departing one by one, the singer leading the way. The cello, with sustained tones, remained. Then, from an unseen room, came music of an entirely different kind, as though from a party where grown-ups were dancing. If you were the child (or the cellist), you'd hear it as though a door were opened, closed, open, closed. You'd hear that romantic music but remain alone with the moon.

Crumb's music and these fine musicians totally engaged the senses, the mind, and the heart.

Arlene Zallman's Variations for Piano on a Villanella by Marenzio, composed in 1992, was played by Karen Rosenak---a tribute to the composer, who died in November. Throughout, the music changed from rapid to thoughtful, from deliberate and soft to deliberate and fast, from sustained and wavelike to sustained and slow. Two notes---only two---played not quite as a chord, seemed somehow romantic. Then, sustained and slow, a lovely, long (I think, 10-note) melody closed an absorbing piece that was varied and adventurous throughout.

--Marilyn Mantay 23 January 2007