Anyone who thinks contemporary classical music is stuffy wasn’t at the National Opera Center last night for a slate of new compositions from the far-reaching New York Composers Circle. The program was diverse, and picturesque, and sometimes ridiculously funny. Yet there were sublime moments as well.
Pianist Markus Kaitila opened the evening with David Picton‘s Sonata, which in the beginning threatened to be merely a doctrinaire, abruptly shifting twelve-tone piece punctuated by lots of space – or vice versa. But then, Kaitila hit a memorably icy, glacially paced interlude which grew to an unexpectedly fanged, marching attack and back, an ascending series of quasi-tritones and then an artful approximation of major-on-minor phantasmagoria. Precisely articulated, increasingly menacing cascades followed until Kaitila brought the next-to-last movement full circle with a careful, weighty composure. The final one could have been a total reprise of the first until a series of emphatic, surrealistically leapfrogging figures. It was as deep as it was devious.
Kevin McCarter‘s Responding Variations turned out to be a conversational duo played by Artie Dibble on viola and Lillian Copeland on oboe. It was a fun, puckish piece, sometimes following a baroque-inflected tangent, otherwise a sequence of brief, wry exchanges, pensively airy passages or jaunty harmonies.
Up next was Debra Kaye‘s Submarine Dreams, performed by Mary Barto on bass flute and Troy Rinker, Jr. on bass. Kaye had been unable to find any extant duo piece for these two instruments, so this may have been a world premiere on more than one level. The two followed a swaying 4/4, then diverging as Rinker put down his bow for a minute and beat out a rhythm on the bass body. A subtle interweave followed with more goofy percussion and then an allusively Indian, misterioso flute theme over low-key bass pedalpoint.
Pianist Nataliya Medvedovskaya debuted her lively, idiomatic Ragtime suite, “The most American composition I’ve ever written,” she grinned. The opening movement was a tongue-in-cheek, cartoonish take on a familiar genre; the second was closer to the fondness of a Scott Joplin piece like Solace. The third was more exuberant and Gershwinesque.
Katie Thomas played Ukrainian composer Olga Victorova’s Fung Hoan, the Magical Birds – based on an ancient Chinese mating myth – solo on violin. Although there were vivid, leaping motives and evocative, sometimes acidically expressive evocations of birdsong, there was no distinctive Asian quality. The drama of the courtship grew more optimistic as boy bird (or maybe not boy bird) grew more confident and drew bird #2 into the dance.
Tamara Cashour‘s original intention with her Two Short Pieces was to combine the highest and lowest orchestral instruments. Ultimately, she opted for solo works instead. Barto trilled her way through the first one on piccolo. Harry Searing followed, steady, thoughtful and serious on contrabassoon for the second: to the composer’s credit, she managed to avert the trap where a device like a fanfare or a jovial stroll can get unintentionally droll if you take it far enough down the scale.
Pianist Anthony de Mare seized the moment to max out the laughs, playing and narrating Timothy L. Miller‘s Two Settings of Ogden Nash Poems, the first a vaudevillian satire of early 20th century bankster excess. The night’s lone trio piece was David Mecionis‘ Trio in Two Parts with an Interval Between, for oboe, viola and bassoon. Just where that interval was located was beside the point. The partita may have been written as a commentary on the past thirty-five months of hell in New York, as Mecionis alluded to the audience. Dibble wandered pensively while Copeland and Searing harmonized, sometimes with subtle dopplers. The three diverged, reconvened with a persistent unease, paused and then resumed, tentative accents amid a general melancholy with the oboe gradually moving to the forefront. Searing’s solemn resonance amid shivers from the viola gave way to a disquieted, triangulated stroll; the three musicians ended it on a decidedly unresolved note.
Thomas and Kaitila closed out the concert with another piece by a Ukrainian composer, Andrey Bandura’s Spring Sonata. This particular spring was a plaintive one, the piano eventually rising to a steady, glistening series of brooklike phrases as Thomas sailed warily overhead. Kaitila worked his way upward toward an ice storm and then down to a gritty crescendo, Thomas holding the center resolutely. As the work went on through a couple of seemingly rather cynical, dancing themes, it brought to mind Bartok’s more acerbic Mikrokosmos miniatures. It’s definitely music for our time: maybe not Springtime for Zelensky, but it’s hard to imagine much optimism coming out of that part the world these days.
The New York Composers Circle have been staging performances of new works by their many members just about monthly. Their next one, featuring several electroacoustic works, is on March 27 at 7 PM at the National Opera Center at 330 7th Ave, just south of 29th St.