Chamber Cartel: Prajñā

I think that this is the first Chamber Cartel concert that I’ve attended in a venue that has climate control. Thinking back, I know that they’ve performed in a few other places, but the only times that I’ve been able to attend their shows have been in the various Goat Farm venues. Fortunately, given the heatwave, the Goat Farm opened up the Warhorse for tonight’s show. It proved to be a pleasantly intimate venue for chamber music, if a bit cramped. I had a comfortable seat but many did not. It wasn’t a particularly long concert, though, and there were no epically long pieces, so I’d probably not have been terribly upset if I’d have had to stand.

The concert had a strong opening with O’Dell playing an unaccompanied and unaugmented toy piano in Toy Toccata by Fabian Svensson. As the name implies, it was a fast paced piece. For much of it, O’Dell seemed to be rapidly alternating between the black and white keys, generally hammering away, and occasionally playing all of the keys at once with her forearms. When I think of pieces for toy piano, I generally think of slower tempi, such as those used by John Cage in his suite for toy piano, and electronic augmentation or accompaniment, such as in works that I’ve heard by George Crumb or Karlheinz Essl. This may be the first piece that I’ve heard on the instrument that really seems to take it seriously in and of itself rather than jus as a novelty. And it worked. And it worked well. Interestingly, the piano was arranged on the stage such that the lid opened away from the audience, somewhat muffling the sound. At times I was bothered by this and at others I thought that it was a good idea.

This was followed by a playful duet for bass clarinet and marimba by Eduardo Maturet and performed by Klemenc and Herron. A brief piece, the two musicians seemed almost in conversation with each other, passing the shapes of ideas back and forth, developing them as they went along. It had a very charming character and seemed to be played with a good sense of lightness.

Next was a piece for solo viola performed by Crawford called Canto Llano by Eduardo Maturet. I felt that this was the weakest piece both in terms of of the quality of the composition and also performance. In it, the viola is miked and the sound is fed through software so that it accompanies itself via an echo. The staging was a bit odd, with the violist in the center of the performance area and the sole speaker stage left. I am not sure if this was done purposefully to give a sense of location for the echo or if it was dictated by the space and resources available, but I’m not sure that I liked the way that the directionality of the sound hit me. As to the piece itself, it was pretty but little more. The pacing was such that the initial echo of each phrase would be heard clearly, so it didn’t quite come across with the richness one might expect of a fugue but it did manage to fill out the sound of the solo instrument to something with a more complex depth. The violist’s part didn’t really respond to the echo at all, so it just came across as a sort of call and response. There were some rough notes here and there that I suspect were more the product of Crawford’s bowing technique than the composer’s intent. I will say that, while I didn’t particularly care for this piece, the couple sitting next to me seemed very interested in it and a friend with whom I chatted afterward liked it very much as well; which just goes to show you that, if you want to be successful, you shouldn’t market to my tastes.

I really liked the next piece. Klemenc returned to play a piece called Sequenza Ixa, composed by Luciano Berio for solo clarinet. I kind of regret that I didn’t pick up the longer-form program that told a little more about the pieces and the composers, but I’m kind of glad that I hadn’t read anything on this one so that my imagination could have a little more room to play. As I listened to the notes come out, it gave me the impression of being a soundtrack for someone doodling in a history class. As the notes came out, I had this idea running through my head of the student’s pencil occasionally making random squiggles or lines and occasionally tracing a more concrete figure, perhaps influenced by the lesson. Why it seemed to be specifically a history class, I don’t know, but somehow I got an image of medieval British history being the bore to inspire the doodles. Either that or a class on Shakespeare’s Henry IV pts 1 and 2.

The only ensemble piece of the program was Klaus Lang’s Die Goldenen Tiere which was scored for bass flute, french horn, violin, viola, triangles, and plastic bags. The musicians were arrange symmetricly, with the horn in back, the flute in front, the percussionists flanking the rear sides, violin on the front left, and the viola on the front right. This configuration created a wonderful stereo effect for the music that really drew me in. The sounds that came from each instrument (aside from the triangles) were gentle. The strings were creaky and wooden. There were three kinds of plastic bags that were used to create a sound somewhere between a wood fire and wind blowing leaves along the ground. The triangles rang out every now and then, occasionally together but usually with a slight delay between one and the other. It was a very quiet and calm piece that evoked, for me, the atmosphere of a New England wharf late on a foggy night — a place that, even when nothing is happening, is full of sound. It was as effectively evocative for me as the sea interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes. The internet tells me that “Die Goldenen Tiere” is German for “The Golden Animals,” which makes me, once again, kind of glad that I didn’t pick up the full program notes that might have changed the imagery that I took from the piece.

The final piece, Loops II, by Philippe Hurel, was for solo vibraphone and performed by Herron. I kind of got the feeling that Hurel was exploring the nature of the vibraphone as an instrument as he composed patterns of repeating phrases, modifying the way that each repetition is dampened. It was a clever and enjoyable piece and it was well played by Herron. It was a suitable ending for the show, but I kind of wish that the final two pieces were switched. If this had been a recorded album then I’d probably have appreciated beginning and ending the album with up-tempo percussion pieces. However, for a live concert, I would have preferred to have ended on the ensemble piece: it would have left me walking out with a mind rich with imagery and wanting more. Plus, it would have placed all of the performers on the stage for a curtain call, which was something that was neglected for this concert. That said, this was a well programmed and well performed concert and I think that everyone who was there would agree that it was also very enjoyable.

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