by Daniel Hathaway
Musicians who are inclined to talk to the audience during concerts should take their lead from Timothy Weiss. On Saturday afternoon in Gartner Auditorium of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the director of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble gave cogent and dryly humorous introductions to music by Luke Bedford, Philip Cashian and Morton Feldman, and conducted a brief, impromptu interview with composer Sean Shepherd.
Everything Weiss had to say illuminated the music to come without repeating what you could have read in the program notes, and there was just enough interactive chat to involve the audience in what was happening.
The Oberlin CME was once again in fine fettle, opening its program with one of the several versions Luke Bedford has made of a ten-minute piece that might generically be titled the Wonderful (fill in the blank)-Headed Nightingale. In this case, the Nightingale, which originally had two heads (violin and viola), then grew four for a string quartet version, became the Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale in a 2011/2012 version for ten players — a quintet each of winds and strings.
Beginning and ending with passages on open strings, the piece pits the Nightingale (in all versions represented by the violin) against contrasting sonorities in the other instruments, with the disquieting intrusion of single notes played a quarter-tone “off key.”
Philip Cashian, another British composer, was represented by his Creeping Frogs, Flying Bats and Swimming Fish, a 1997 composition that takes its inspiration from the artwork of M.C. Escher. In fourteen movements that last just fifteen minutes, Cashian visits a whole range of moods from “smooth and exaggerated” to “urgent and intense” to “strong and driving,” characteristics that the ensemble of clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet (the same instruments involved in Schubert’s Octet) captured vividly in rapid succession.
Eight minutes is the mere blink of an eye in the musical world of Morton Feldman, but that’s the duration of his gentle 1971 work, Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano. Ryan Toher, Silvio Guitian and Colin Roshak were the super-subtle clarinetists, joined by cellist Miriam DuVall and pianist Lukas Raffanti.
“Floating, Circling, Spinning, Grinding, Sinking, Teetering and Soaring. These are my favorite ‘ing’ words,” said composer Sean Shepherd before the Oberlin CME played the seven movements of his 2009 piece, These Particular Circumstances. As Weiss pointed out in his conversation with Shepherd, the orchestration for the 20-minute work was suggested by Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, the same ensemble Benjamin Britten used in his Sinfonia, op. 1.
“This is the modern orchestra,” Weiss said, noting that the combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, harp, piano and string quintet gives a composer all the colors he or she needs to create symphonic hues within a chamber ensemble of 15 or 16 musicians. Shepherd enthusiastically explored the possibilities of those forces, including lavish use of chimes, whip and other percussion effects. Quotations from Holst’s The Planets and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin inexplicably poked their heads out of the texture at one point.
In just about an hour’s worth of music, the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble once again demonstrated its seemingly effortless mastery of tricky musical styles and textures. And once again, physical changeovers between pieces were accomplished with foresight and dispatch. Another impressive detail of the afternoon: each ensemble tuned backstage, then came onstage, sat down and played. That efficiency is something to be emulated.
The third Oberlin CME performance at the Museum on December 13 at 2:00 pm will feature violinist Jennifer Koh and Darrett Adkins in a program that includes Richard Wernick’s Concerto for Cello and 10 players, Harrison Birtwistle’s Cortege & Giacinto Scelsi’s Anahit.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 3, 2014.
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