Chamber Cartel with Margot Rood: Living in Light

One of the sad truths that I have had to face in life is that if any organization were to market directly to my tastes then they’d go under very quickly. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that I’d eventually find myself in the audience for a Chamber Cartel concert that didn’t really suit me. I am not of the opinion that “Living in Light” was poorly programmed — I think that a lot of people would really like it — but it just wasn’t for me.

Staged at the (wonderfully air conditioned) M. Rich Center for Creative Arts, Media and Technology, the concert began 20 minutes late without anyone doing the audience the courtesy of saying something about it. Part of the reason that it started late was that more people attended than had been anticipated so arrangements had to be made. Part of it, though, was that, like too many other performing arts organizations, allowances were made for the expected latecomers. People come late, of course, because performances never start on time and will generally bend over backwards to make sure that latecomers are seated. With the exception of cases where there are specific obstacles to people arriving on time, such as abnormal (even for Atlanta) traffic issues, this is something that I think is very inconsiderate of audience members who do arrive at a reasonable time. And if it is necessary to start late for any reason then the least that can be done is to notify and apologize the audience around the time that the performance should have started. No professional should ever allow a performance to begin more than 10 minutes late without at least this simple courtesy.

The concert (eventually) began with “Living in Light” by Heather Gilligan performed by guest soprano Margot Rood and cellist Jean Gay. This is a setting of four of poet Sara Teasdale’s darker works. The two that I recognized included one that some have claimed served as her suicide note, “I Shall Not Care,” and the the slightly more nihilistic “A Little While,” from which the title of the piece and, ultimately, the eponymous concert came. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a listing of the poem titles in the program and the description of the piece really only mentioned Teasdale’s name as an afterthought so I’m not sure what the other two are. A cursory search failed to turn up better documentation online.

Musically, Gilligan’s writing for voice was solid. It was somewhat influenced by the folk music of the British Islands, which isn’t a musical tradition that I particularly enjoy. Rood’s singing was excellent: she has a clarity and strength to her voice that is truly a pleasure to hear. The writing for the cello accompaniment, however, was all over the place and, although it was mostly well played, I found it somewhat tiresome and distracting. Song to song, the cello’s style changes dramatically, beginning as a lyrical accompaniment to the voice and moving through a pizzicato phase and ending with a heavy use of double stops. I felt that the composer was trying too hard to make a simple piece more interesting by introducing a false sense of nuance. There were things in this piece that made me think that, although I didn’t really like it, the composer has probably written things that I would like, so I hope to hear more from her.

Here there be harsh, critical dragons.

Adapted from his score for the film “Naqoyqatsi”, Phillip Glass’ “Tissues” is a set of pieces orchestrated for keyboard, percussion, and cello. The orchestration was simplified somewhat for this performance, with a slimmed down set of percussion instruments and all of the keyboard parts played on an electric piano. The pieces require quite a bit of slow, soft, steady bowing from the cellist. It’s the kind of piece in which an unsteady bowing pace, a little too much rosin on the bow, imprecise or uneven pressure, or allowing the bow to wander up and down the strings during sustained notes will stand out pretty dramatically. Gray managed to control her pacing very well but the sound that came out suggested that she was having trouble with one or more of the other issues mentioned above. She also had some noticeable bowing errors in both the previous and next pieces. There was an unpleasantly bright, creaky sound to her instrument throughout the concert that suggested over rosining, though nothing nearly as bad as the sound from violinist Helen Hwaya Kim (who, if the light is right, you can see producing clouds of rosin as she plays). This sound contrasted horribly with the rounded, smoothed-over sound of O’Dell’s electric piano.

I can’t be sure if this was just a bad night for her or if the piece was beyond her (it was originally composed for Yo Yo Ma, so that wouldn’t really be shameful). I know that I’ve heard Gay perform a number of times before and, aside from the occasional sour note that you expect from semi-professional musicians who don’t get to spend all day practicing, I don’t recall ever having a negative opinion of her playing. I’d probably not shy away from a future concert that featured her prominently, though I might hesitate to go to a solo recital at this point.

After a brief intermission and a cup of wine, we came back to Caroline Shaw’s “In manus tuas,” Latin for “In your hands,” for solo cello performed by Gay. Some slight brightness and creakiness on the slow, opening passage gave way to a stronger performance as the piece picked up. The piece requires the cellist to vocalize with some of the sustained notes here and there, which Gay handled well. There were no notes in the program for it, so I looked up the piece online because I recalled reading that it was based on a baroque era work when I had previously heard a recording, though I couldn’t recall which. It seems that its source was actually Renaissance and not Baroque: it’s based on a motet by Thomas Tallis and was composed for a secular evening prayer service. There’s a certain boldness to the work that I would not associate with prayer, though I’d say that there is a mindfulness to it that might be appropriate. Although I complained of her work on the Glass, Gay’s performance here was good enough that this was my favorite of the four performances on the program.

The final work of the evening was “Letters Made with Gold” by Shawn Jaeger. This was for a much larger ensemble that included soprano, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp, violin, viola, cello, bass, and percussion. As it started, I recall thinking that it was good. By the time that I got to my car after the concert, though, the only thing that really stood out about it was that the ensemble wasn’t accompanying the soprano, as one might expect, so much as the soprano was a member of the ensemble. Although Rood’s voice was crystal clear and her diction was excellent, I was unable to make out much of the text of the lyrics but this seemed to be more because her voice was being used as another instrument in the ensemble instead of as the primary focus of the work. The piece is an adaptation of three Appalachian folk songs, although it doesn’t retain their melodies, instead taking lined-out hymnody as its inspiration. There were definitely some interesting things about the piece but, much like Gilligan’s piece, it was just not to my tastes. Oh, how I wish that Rood had been brought in for some Crumb instead of these two pieces!

It wasn’t for me, but I think that there was a lot for someone with different tastes to mine to like in this concert. I’ve just never been fond of the folk traditions that informed the opening and closing pieces and the composers didn’t bring anything of their own into them that appealed to me. Like I said, though, no organization can survive in this market catering to just to my tastes.

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