Neophonia: Tête-à-Tête

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that my favorite pieces on a program of new music were all over thirty years old. Then again, I am also over thirty years old and I’m your favorite, right? Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Neophonia’s “Tête-à-Tête” at the Rialto last night. It was a woodwind-heavy program with fewer works by French composers than I’d have expected for a concert that was part of France-Atlanta 2017. With two world premiers and some very engaging music and should have been much better attended given the fact that it was free. Then again, maybe people wanted to steer clear of anything involving the French embassy after the French government’s Romani ethnic cleansing program at the beginning of this decade.

The concert started with an arrangement of Debussy’s “Syrinx” for three flutes (mise en résonance pour 3 flûtes) by François Narboni. The three flautists played off of each other, such that while one played the main theme of the piece, the others would create resonant effects. The resonance was somewhat cool, but only that: I felt that it added nothing to what was already a beautiful and entrancing piece.

This was followed by the world premier of Philippe Hurel’s “Trois études pour Atlanta” for flute and percussion. It sounded to me somewhat like a jingle that had been broken down into its component parts leaving nothing of the meaning or concept that emerges when the parts are properly arranged. I wasn’t as interested in it as I might have been.

If the first two pieces didn’t grab me, “Distances” by Jean-Paul Rieunier for solo clarinet evoked a pretty enjoyable narrative for me. I had an image in my head of a yellow Seuss-esque bird, accented in green with features blended from a kiwi, dodo, and a quail encountering a mirror and not knowing what to make of it. It tries to engage it like it’s another bird but, of course, it only responds exactly as the bird behaves. Every so often a different human comes through and uses the mirror to different ends: some groom themselves, some check themselves out, some talk angrily at themselves, and each time the bird seems to try to learn how to engage with what is in the mirror from how the humans behave. Though the images in my head were light, the music itself seemed to be technically pretty complicated and Dominique Vidal did a great job of keeping the work coherent and stable.

Next up was Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Hermes.” The piece for solo flute laid tranquil, gentle, and soft baseline that was regularly broken up with some mad, rushed activity. Patrice Bocquillon had excellent technique, bringing out a very clear and steady sound from his flute even in the most soft and quiet parts of the work.

Miniature Suite by Gordon Jacob was the most melodic work in the program. Orchestrated for clarinet and viola, it was made up of four short movements and struck me as a portrait of a relationship between two people. The first movement was a melodic laughing dance, like a party at which the couple may have met. The second movement was like a romantic slow dance with certain almost sickly moments encapsulated in a quiet strength, like a couple working through something awful together. The next movement sounded somewhat like a familiar promenade through the park with a certain silly attitude, with moments where the couple seemed to be in peaceful disagreement with or disapproval of something they see in the scene around them. And, finally, the end sounded like a couple of silly people at home, talking past each other, inhabiting the same space but different realities and being perfectly fine with that fact.

“Lasting Virtue” by Fernando de Sena was like teflon to my attention. I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering. Every once in a while there was a shift in the tone of the music and I’d realize that I had no idea what had just been played. I can’t even say that I didn’t think it was a good work because I, essentially, didn’t hear it. It’s almost impressive how it seemed to just push my attention away from it every time that I did try to focus on it.

The concert concluded with Nickitas Demos’ “inconsequential intricacies.” A bass flute laid a gentle, steady, deep base for the work with a clarinetist and a second flutist, who alternated between piccolo and concert flute, creating a bit of a hoppy, choppy, superficial distraction over it. A percussionist alternating between vibes and marimba would at some points play more towards the distracting duo and at others be drawn more towards the bass flute, as though it was a mind being regularly drawn away from the more consequential meaningful depths of thought in favor of diverting entertainment or info-tainment. It was a pretty good work and, based on Demos’ program notes for it, my impression of it may actually be what was intended by the composer, but I think that I’d have liked it more if it were written for a larger ensemble. It wasn’t a bad way to end the concert, though.

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