Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Empyrean Ensemble, Double Trouble

Double Trouble, the title of Sunday evening's Empyrean Ensemble concert at Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre, brought to mind several possible meanings as the concert went on. 'Double trouble', applied to twins, means two independent persons; with this music, independent voices, whether instrumental, rhythmic, melodic, or a combination, were very clear. The Ensemble, directed by Laurie San Martin and Kurt Rohde, presented another superb program. Judging from questios asked of the composers' panel before the program, the audience seems comprised of contemporary music afficionados; where are people who like to chance something new?

As for two voices, there could be a C flute, played with notes alternating high and low, as Tod Brody did with The Heaven of Animals, the second part of composer Harold Meltzer's Rumors. The ear heard separate soprano and alto melodies. The first part, Trapset for Alto Flute, had the flutist, it seemed, communicating with the flute. Brody huffed into the mouthpiece, then depressed keys sets to make a rhythmic clicked response; this rhythmic exchange continued throughout the piece. Artist/instrument acquaintance established, near the end the flutist essayed familiar musical sounds. The third piece, Focus Group for piccolo, again had two voices, one higher one lower, alternating notes and thus creating, as with the C flute, two melodic lines. The creation of this complex music, by both composer and flutist, stands as a remarkable musical accomplishment.

Another contrast: viola (Ellen Ruth Rose) and percussion (Chris Froh) opened the evening with Peter Josheff's Viola and Mallets, composed especially for the Empyrean Ensemble and this occasion. Not only were there two instrumental voices but the contrast of lyricism and percussion. Rose's viola opened with a long, lingering line, like an eloquent sentence in no hurry to reach a period. Froh, with his mallets, played quick notes between viola notes but sustained some with a pedal, making the duet as rhythmic as it was lyrical. Returning the compliment, Rose created percussive sounds with her viola. Did we hear two women with violas and two men with mallets? It almost seemed that way.

Lee Hyla's We Speak Etruscan featured another amazing duo: Peter Josheff on clarinet and Kevin Stewart on baritone saxophone. Nobody, of course, speaks Etruscan, so why not imagine it as these two reed instruments? In Hyla's composition, the conversation ranges from unanimity and mildness to low growls, squawks and high-pitched screams. Sometimes they played together melodies with different time signatures, as (I think) ¾ and 4/4, creating not only intriguing rhythmic patterns but also unusual passing chords. A slow duet had notes that shimmered, and the rambunctious clarinet played against an imperterbable melody by the sax. One part of the piece sounded like city traffic, another like a visit to a jazz club. Ancient Etruscans visit New York? Whatever, musicians and composer infuse the piece with that essential ingredient: imagination.

After intermission, the earliest composition on the program, Sheila Silver's 1988 work, G Whiz, almost seemed like old familiar ground, in terms of structure if not of instrumentation. Violinists Terrie Baune and Anna Presler opened the first theme one after the other---think Three Blind Mice---and that man with the mallets, Chris Froh, entered with chords and percussive tones but melody as well. The violins could be soft and pretty, but the marimba gave the music a beat and a forward push. In the last section, Froh was agile and athletic, and the music full of excitement.

Kurt Rohde's three part Double Trouble brought together an ensemble of seven musicians---Brody, Josheff, Baune and Rose, plus violist Kurt Rohde, cellist Thalia Moore and pianist Karen Rosenak. Conductor was Mary Chun.

In keeping with the idea of duality, the first part, Obsessive Compulsive, opens with sounds---plinks, planks and plunks---and with extreme tempos, one very fast and one slow. The piano introduces the melody, taken up by the strings, and even by piccolo and then the violin. It all seemed rather cacaphonous, tamed by the piano and melodious violas. Sharp chords brought this movement to a close. Double opened with atonal sustained chords; the theme began in the violas, which took the lead throughout. Spaziod opened like a frenzied hoe-down, clarinet and flute leading and strings emphasizing rhythm. At one point, clarinet sounded like a foghorn, and the fast-paced, noisy section sounded less like a dance than a melee. The violas played the theme in unison, there were melodic gestures from other instruments, then a special flourish from the piano...and an abrupt end.

I loved this concert not only for the remarkable music but also for what it taught about listening and hearing. The music is complex, but the way notes and voices are distributed---spread out, divided, not so much smoothed out or intertwined---you can pay attention and hear, say, a melody developing one note at a time and another, with alternate notes, doing the same thing. You hear an atonal chord emerge, stabilize, change and disappear. I do not have the expertise to appreciate total structure, but I always heard what was going on.

The closing Empyrean Ensemble concert, New Music from Davis, is set for Wednesday, May 30, at 8 pm in the Mondavi Center Studio Theatre.

---Marilyn Mantay 3 April 2007

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