New faculty works premiered
To put it frankly, I found the Oberlin Composers concert of this past Tuesday to be a disappointment. Though the program did not lack the stylistic diversity that provides new music concerts at Oberlin with their unique flavor, the concert was undermined by a diversity of a different kind — a diversity in quality between the presentations of the five works on the program.
The first two pieces, although perhaps not masterworks, were solid compositions with compelling performances. Jeffrey Mumford’s Three Musings...Revisiting Memories, which premiered in this recital, was given an expressive rendition by Ole Bohn, visiting violin professor. Mr. Bohn, to whom the program notes refer as a “distinguished champion of new music,” was the violinist for whom the piece was written. He kept a high technical standard while displaying his fine sense of the diverse moods displayed in the work. The piece itself was a concise atonal work in three movements that ranged from virtuosic, loud double-stopping passages, to sections that bounced between extended techniques as if flipping through TV channels, to gentle but unsettled elegies.
Left Turn at Albuquerque for violoncello and piano by Daniel Michalak, was a fun, bluesy number. Basically a genre composition, it strayed from the idiom in its instrumentation and by the frequent, spicy harmonic modulations. The work was performed with the composer at the keyboard and Gabrielle Athayde (OC ‘08) on the cello. Both showed a good understanding of the work’s style, and played with sufficient flair to keep this restless piece from losing steam.
Wendy Wan-ki Lee’s piece, Elegy and Capriccio for solo cello, was the first piece that I thought did not come across effectively. The composition itself was interesting enough, though I felt it to be slightly long-winded and too predictable. Indeed, it seemed a piece that one of the cellists of Apocalyptica, the cello quartet known for their covers of heavy metal bands like Metallica and Sepultura, could have brought to life effectively, with the gloomy, angst-filled Elegy and the rageful outburst of the Capriccio. Unfortunately, the piece had no such interpreter. Instead, cellist Emily Stoops, though generally able to play the notes, lacked the emotional or formal understanding of the piece that might have allowed her to communicate the work to the audience in a more enjoyable manner. She barreled through climaxes and transitions with inadequate sensitivity, and I found her lackluster ending to the piece to be wanting.
Finally, I felt that the two works presented by the husband and wife team of Gary Lee Nelson (sound) and Christine Gorbach (image) possessed much potential. Unfortunately, a few aspects of their realization struck me as ineffective. In The Red Line, Ms. Gorbach’s images of a twisting band of color were fascinating, and they received enough variation to keep my attention throughout. On the other hand, though Mr. Nelson’s ghostly electronic score worked throughout most of the piece, unexpected new sound in the bass register at the end of the work gave the sense that possibilities for musical development had not yet been exhausted. To my mind, this broke up the unity of the composition.
The images in the very personal My Regards worked well. Featuring Ms. Gorbach’s face run through various visual effects and superimposed against a variety of her paintings, it pulled the audience in by focusing on the subtle shades of expressions on her face in an effective rhythm. However, the musical score subverted the subtlety in the images by taking recorded samples of Ms. Gorbach’s voice and layering them in a way that seemed overly generic.
This was especially frustrating because Ms. Gorbach’s voice and laughter on their own were powerful in expressing the poignant feelings she had about her late mother, whose voice also appeared in the audio collage. I suspect one of the intended effects of Mr. Nelson’s layering was to suggest the universality of Ms. Gorbach’s sentiments. Paradoxically, though, what struck me as universal in her story were its individual traits — the specific sound as her laughter creased in a regretful way, and the way her eyes on the screen seemed lost in memories that were hers and no one else’s. These elements were smoothed down by their placement within an artificial multitude and the layering of her voice.
Certainly not every concert can be mind-blowing, as some of the concerts I
have attended at Oberlin have been. Unfortunately, this one had too many issues
to fit into that category. I can only hope that the next concert of Oberlin
Composers will be more satisfying.