Sunday, October 14, 2007

Empyrean Ensemble

I intend to write here mostly about concerts by the UCD Department of Music. The first, Sunday night's opening by the Empyrean Ensemble conducted by Mary Chun, ''celebrated,'' as Laurie San Martin said in her introduction, ''the woodwind octet.'' The audibility of each instrument---whether in octets, duet by clarinet and flute, or solo with snare drum and high hat---was remarkable. Of course the musicians---an octet of woodwinds and brasses, but a double bass instead of the tuba in the second half---could not have created such distinctive musical sounds had the composers not heard them first. Those five men, all present on Sunday night, might well have taken inspiration from Edgard Varese's 'Octandre', from 1923, which closed the program.

Hearing the voices separately and noting changes as each was paired with a different instrument made the concert particularly exciting.

For this premiere of Jerome Rosen's 'Moment Musical' (1986) Peter Josheff's clarinet paired with Tod Brody's flute, with Hall Goff's trombone or Eric Achen's horn. Carla Wilson's bassoon, Laura Reynolds' oboe, Scott Macomber's trumpet and Zachariah Spellman's tuba came to the fore when a melody was created by instruments alternating notes. Even with eight voices to listen for---that is, if you tried to listen that way---the result was continuity. The music was also fun, especially the tuba solo near the end.

Jonathan Russell's 'Fanfare for Varese' (2007) began calmly but, reaching the short, quick theme, used notes that were separate and sudden, but, as in Mr. Rosen's piece, how well they were joined. A combination of trumpet and trombone, and big splashes of sound were exciting; the woodwinds added variety and color.

Allen Shearer's seven 'Bagatelles' for flute and clarinet (2006) had Brody and Josheff relating instrumentally in special ways, at first by echoing the same theme, then by echoing with themes related but different. The third short piece was lively; one instrument completed the other's line or emphasizing it. From this fast bagatelle, the music became slow and beautiful; in the fifth part, a rising theme with triads and scales had one musician again following the other. A mingling of voices made the sixth piece especially pleasing. A light, bright final piece had the flute sounding sometimes like a piccolo, and the clarinet becoming soft as a whisper, quietly bringing this charming work to a close.

Kenneth Froehlich's octet, 'Clog' (2007) introduces the double bass (Michel Taddei) in place of the tuba. Mr. Froehlich attributed title and music to the hours he spends at the computer. At first Mr. Taddei seemed the center of rhythm and melody, but there was also a combination of sounds that reminded me of street noises, maybe a traffic jam, in a big city. Oboe and bassoon (Ms. Reynolds and Ms. Wilson) had leading roles too; I heard their parts very clearly. And Mr. Brody pulled out his piccolo. 'Clog' was an exciting piece; too bad we have to isolate Mr. Froehlich with his computer so he can write another.

Chris Burns's 'Second Language' (2005) was written for timpanist Chris Froh, whose performance was mesmerizing. Picture him brushing the snare and the high hat, with tiny variations in shimmering sound and in motion, but with sticks introduced to make an occasional sharp impact. Much music can be enjoyed on CD, but for Chris Froh and his performance of 'Second Language,' you really have to be there.

Going backward, Varese, in 'Octandre', set a tone more than 75 years ago that composers value today. 'Octandre' opens with oboe, adds flute, bassoon and loud brass. There is what I call 'city sounds' but with the charm of separate instruments, like the piccolo and b-flat clarinet, the bassoon, and extensive use of oboe. The double bass and its recitation of the theme, and the rhythmic patterns by horn, trumpet and trombone, were particularly striking.

The next Empyrean Ensemble concert, Celebrating Merce Cunningham: in tHe sPirit of CAGE, is set for Sunday, January 13 at 7 pm. Tickets for this concert are $14.50 students and $29 adults. Concerts on April 15 and June 2 are priced at $9 and $18. All are set in the Studio Theatre, and pre-performance lectures begin an hour before each concert.

---Marilyn M. Mantay