ACP: Rapido! National Finals

I generally enjoyed all five of the pieces that were finalists in this year’s Rapido! Competition produced by the Atlanta Chamber Players. The theme this year was dance and the instrumentation was flute, clarinet, and cello. Once again, my favorite wasn’t the one that the judges picked but their choice was one of the three of the five that I would like to hear expanded upon.

The first of the finalists performed was Jason Gerraughty’s Get It Out of You. My first thought at reading the title was something along the lines of “eww” but the piece was based on a tarantella and the title referred to the folklore behind the tarantella as a dance performed to get tarantula venom out of one’s system so I guess it makes sense. The piece was a sort of chirpy madness pressing forward progressively faster until a final collapse. Oddly, I didn’t feel a sense of urgency from the way that the piece developed. I say that it was odd because, for some reason, I found myself expecting some sense of urgency to develop. I really liked it, though, and it was one of the three that I’d have liked to see developed further.

Next up was Mason Johnston’s If a Rubber Ball Could Dance. This was a clever piece that presented bouncy music set within a progressively shrinking meter, going from 8 beats down to 1. It felt to me like an odd journey stepping down to something bouncy and fun. I think that this would have benefited from filling out the sound with a couple of more instruments, like maybe a viola and either a bassoon or a double bass, depending on which way the composer would want to take it.

The third piece was the winner of the grand prize, 3 Dances by Brian Nabors. This was easily the most charming of the five. It was in three movements, each representing a different style of music that the composer was inspired by while growing up. The first movement, titled Hyper-Tango, was charming and fun. The second, Foxtrot, featured a plucked cello laying a rhythm along with some finger snapping by the musicians. It was a cool little bit of jazz with a slight swing to it that seemed to end with the music telling a secret and giving a warning. The concluding movement was called Hip-Hop Jam. Nabors introduction referenced southern hip-hop, but the rhythms reminded me more of a cross between early Body Count and NWA, though maybe somewhat less aggressive. In all three movements, it was clear that Nabors was trying to share his own personal interests in the music through his work. As part of his prize, the ASO will be commissioning a piece from him and I’m genuinely interested to see what he comes up with.

Innocent Machine by Ben Robichaux was the penultimate work in the competition. It was the most exciting of the five: with a rhythm that drove forward in a solid, mechanical way. Robichaux described it as a dance theme being manipulated by a machine, with the machine only performing as designed until, towards the end, it becomes sentient of what it is doing. Aside from a brief part that was more subdued – the machine’s realizing a degree of awareness – the piece felt like it was all form without much in the way of substance. That might sound like I’m dismissing it as vapid, but I’m not: the form was genuinely interesting and, as I said, exciting. There just wasn’t much room for me to connect with it meaningfully and the piece was a bit short, having to comply with the contest rules, to really let my mind wrap around the form. While I’m not sure that expanding on this particular piece would be interesting to me, it would be interesting to me to see what Robichaux could do without time constraints.

The final piece of the competition and my personal favorite was Phantom Limb: Pas de Trois by Eric Sergerstrom. Of the five, this was the only one that really connected with me on a deep level. From the first sustained note, I had an image of three tortured grotesques, gnomish and hunched over, cringing and moving in towards each other in a set of writhing movements that slowly developed into something that was clearly meant to be a dance. As the piece progressed, the three connected more and more to each other and felt their movements with greater ease as, together, they found their way towards relief and ultimately some joy. The composer’s note on the piece mentions that he hasn’t been taking any joy in composing since completing his time in conservatory and is hoping to regain his enjoyment by writing more. I certainly hope that he does continue to compose and that he does ultimately find some kind of satisfaction in it because I think that there’s potential that he’ll create more works that I’d enjoy hearing.

After an intermission and while the judges were off being all judgmental, the concert concluded with a really nice performance of Jean René Désiré Françaix’s String Trio in C Major. It’s a piece that I had no familiarity with but mostly enjoyed. The first two movements are quick and dancey: the musicians seemed to paint a wash of color across the stage. The third movement adante put me in mind of an old person with a giant brush painting memories over everything they see. Part way through, they are interrupted and lead off to a hospital where a doctor and their family discuss their condition. The final movement wasn’t for me. It was like a vibrant dance at a festival referencing northwestern European folk dances, with some sort of conflict happening between two people in the middle that gets resolved through a dramatic dance between the two before returning to the group folk dances of the festival. It would be more interesting to me but for the dancey theme just not being appealing to my tastes, so I found it a bit dull. I liked the first three movements, though, and think that if the scherzo started and was followed by the adante and the fourth movement were completely left out, ending instead on the pizzicato note that concludes the first movement, then I would really enjoy it.

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