Contemporary Music Uneven
Last Friday, Oberlin’s ever-popular Contemporary Music Ensemble, with some help from the Wind Ensemble, played to a nearly packed audience in Warner Concert Hall under the baton of Maestro Timothy Weiss. As usual, the performers demonstrated an astoundingly high level of musicianship and technical expertise. Unfortunately, some of the pieces deserved the performers’ artistry more than others.
The first piece on the program, Edgard Varese’s Octandre, certainly deserved the talented performers. Written in 1923 for seven wind instruments and double bass, the work is a contemporary music classic.
Varese wrote the piece to get away from many musical conventions. He used the wind section to escape the string-centered hierarchy of the orchestra. He used thick clusters of notes to show his independence from tonality. At the same time, though, he maintained a strong sense of thematic development and a masterful attention to orchestrational detail.
The eight performers, all part of the Wind Ensemble, stepped up to the challenges of the piece, giving a fun, yet graceful and dignified performance. From the opening motive in the oboe to the final note in the French horn, the players effectively presented a compelling work.
GO (...go...go) by faculty composer Lewis Nielson, the final piece on the program, was the other highlight of the evening. Written for chamber orchestra, the work deals with the development of pitch material versus the development of color.
It was typical of the piece to have a few instruments sustaining a single note or chord while other instruments produced a wide variety of sounds around it, from trills in the woodwinds to sweeping glissandi in the harp to scraping the strings of the piano. Thus, the audience witnessed the simultaneous evolution of the foundation, sustained notes and the peripheral colorful gestures, which created a slow sense of growth.
Achieving this, of course, required an immense knowledge and control of all the instruments, a perfect sense of timing from Nielson, along with an incredible sensitivity to the music from the CME performers. With everyone doing his or her part, the piece was both riveting and beautiful.
The other pieces on the program, however, could not measure up to these two gems. The first, Poetry Nearing Silence by Julian Anderson, was scored for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. The work achieved some interesting sounds, especially when the composer tried to make the different timbres of the instruments match as closely as possible. In the opening gesture of the piece, for instance, he blended short notes in the flute and clarinet with pizzicato notes in the strings, creating a homogeneous hybrid sound from a heterogeneous group. In spite of these moments and a clearly well-rehearsed performance, the piece was still unimpressive.
The other piece was Dionysiacs by David Felder, written for six solo flutists, from piccolo to bass-flute, and an ensemble placed around the audience.
The piece began with the soloists playing a painfully high, shrill passage — seemingly lifted from Gyorgi Ligeti’s Atmospheres — on their piccolos. This was the least of the work’s problems. However, the screeching timbre of the solos, on the whole, were quite interesting.
What brought the piece down was the ensemble. Its placement in the audience
created interesting sonic possibilities, but the device had trouble moving
beyond being a novel trick. Felder’s idea of having the performers play
water glasses and a variety of flute-like instruments ranging from ocarinas to
slide whistles to nose flutes in addition to their regular instruments was not
musically successful. The piece tread a fine line between music and kitsch,
leaning more toward kitsch than music, a pity for what had the makings of an