I almost didn’t go to the Rapido! National Finals Concert this afternoon: I woke up with a headache and have spent the day in a most foul, antisocial mood. I’m glad that I got over the headache (and myself) enough to go, though, because there were some good pieces to hear.
Before the five finalist pieces were performed, there were two non-competition pieces by two of the three national judges: earthsongs by Robert Spano and Paula’s Piece by Michael Gandolfi.
Spano’s earthsongs is one part of a grander piano piece that he is in the process of composing that uses the four classical elements as inspiration. It is an enjoyable and interesting piece and Spano played it well, though I don’t know that it quite meets what I’d want out of it. As a solo piano piece, I want it to have a much slower tempo for some reason; it may actually make it sound a bit like a Morton Feldman piece in some parts, though it wasn’t quite so minimalistic. Really, though, I’d like to hear it orchestrated for a larger ensemble. I scribbled down piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon immediately after hearing it and, while I’m not sure that is really where I’d like it to go, I would want to hear some woodwinds and strings: I think that those are the tone colors that would express the music best for me.
Paula’s Piece by Gandolfi was a real treat. It was commissioned as a surprise honor for Paula Peace, the founder and former artistic director of the Atlanta Chamber Players and, as such, it was not listed in the program. It was a touching tribute to Peace but it was also a delightful piece to hear. Composed for solo piano, Gandolfi stated that he tried to imply Spanish music, such as flamenco, but also to create a very sweet and melodic middle. The middle was, indeed, sweet and melodic and flowed like babbling brook and on either side of it was an escort of something that made me think of a flamenco march, as though the whole thing was a parade for Peace.
After an intermission, the performance of the five competition pieces began. This year’s contest was to write a theme and variations for piano, violin, and clarinet. The first piece was MVC by the winner of the Northeast region, Louis Cruz. MVC refers to a software architecture for developing user interfaces but the piece made me think more of traditional architecture or, perhaps, city development. This may be because it reminded me a lot of Reich’s City Life.
The second piece, which got my vote for best piece, was Allomprphosis by Kenneth Lim, of the West Coast region. The beginning made me think of Debussy, particularly in the piano part which put me in mind of Footprints in the Snow. This transitioned into a much more vibrant section, which made me think of something like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, moving then towards some kind of war-buddies drama, like Tom and Jerry enlist, go to war together, and then have some kind of dramatic resolution based around the bond that they formed at war. All of this isn’t to say that there was anything that seemed at all like incidental music, but it just kind of guided my mind toward this kind of story.
The weakest piece of the concert was A Guide to Interior Places by Kevin Eppich from the Midwest region. It didn’t really have a good flow to it nor did it seem to have a point toward which it was working. It seemed very introspective but without any meaningful insight. That said, it was still pretty decent and I honestly think that it could be fleshed out into something very good. I suspect that if the contest didn’t require the piece to be between four and six minutes long that just allowing each movement a little more time to develop would make it a really good piece.
The penultimate piece was great fun. Iris Variations, by UGA faculty member Peter Van Zandt Lane of the Southeast region, was interesting in that the initial theme isn’t presented until the fourth of nine variations. Each variation becomes progressively shorter, with the first being 56 seconds long and the final being a brief 8 seconds. The composer notes that it was written as a fast middle movement and it is, indeed, fast and, as I said, fun; I’d be interested to hear how it fits in with a longer piece.
Mark Buller of the Southwest region finished the program with Regressive Variations. Like Lane, Buller hid his theme later in the piece, in this case, the end, so that the piece seemed to become more “itself” as it progressed through the variations. This was a really engaging piece, shifting from fast to slow in a way that created in my head a kind of program of a life-time conversation between friends, beginning with a conversation between very excited people, moving towards a period of reflection after whatever had been so exciting, leading to something that made me think of an excited argument that then moves on to a sense of exposure and vulnerability, and finally progressing towards another conversation between excited people, like the whole thing is beginning again but clearer, as though from the perspective of parents watching their kids begin to repeat the cycle that they had just gone through. This was the piece that won the contest and I’m very satisfied with that decision; it was my second choice and was a very clear and well developed piece. I look forward to hearing the expanded version and to hearing what he writes for the ASO commission that came with winning the contest.