Looking Through the Glass
Mei-Fang Lin's Multiplication Virtuelle for percussion and electronics established the peculiar tone for the evening. Kennedy moved from one percussion set-up to another "like a practitioner of tai chi," and he played with an admirable assuredness. But just as an onlooker can not reap the physical and mental benefits of tai chi by watching a few gracefully executed movements, neither can a listener fully comprehend and appreciate the musical intention without some sort of real, visceral immersion in the aural world. Structurally, the piece lacks development; it is a straightforward progression from one instrumental group to another that, after a while, begins to sound like a series of exercises. Multiplication Virtuelle contains some lovely moments, particularly in the spontaneously processed electronic sounds and the jazzy plucking of the Lion's Roar, but falls short of adding up to a satisfying, integrated whole. The performance seemed to be a fulfilling experience for the percussionist but was less so for the audience.
Chryssie Nanou's performance of Sciarrino's "Piano Sonata IV" maintained the feeling of a private practice made inadvertently public. The piece is an ambitious physical exercise for the player, who leaps relentlessly from one end of the keyboard to the other as if channeling the strengths of a virtuoso stride pianist gone mad. Nanou could have delivered the piece with more comedy, with more wry flair for the drama that seems inherent in the score. Instead, I felt as though I were observing her through a practice room window, watching her begin her day with a vigorous warm-up routine. Rather than "tending" to technical matters, a pianist needs to approach the piece with as much recklessness as precision, not to mention some flamboyant dynamic shaping. In this way, for the pianist as well as for listener, Sciarrino's musical lunacy becomes inescapable.
The Contemporary Players want their audiences to "listen to modern art," and they incorporate the visual art concept into other aspects of their programming, but framing music in this metaphor takes a rather cool, abstract approach to what should be a more fun and engaging experience--on both sides of the podium! Sciarrino's Infinito Nero, for example, walked the fine line between "private" music and publicized performance. With its fragmented juxtaposition of silence and quiet unmusical sounds, the piece has the potential to turn the listener into a Peeping Tom. Yet in one of the most expressive moments of the evening, percussionist William Winant broke through the glass with a series of superbly measured decrescendos on the bass drum. Winant teased a simple chain of quarter notes into a visceral musical idea, and suddenly, I was no longer a mere observer but a vicarious participant. The fading footfalls--POM, POm, Pom, pom--became my own, and I was more or less immersed in the piece, in the mezzo-soprano's startling vocal outbursts and the wind instruments' punctuating breaths and gasps.
If anything, the performance of modern music needs to offer more than a museum quality presentation. The Players are clearly and willfully engaged; as a listener, I want to feel that I, too, am in the musical trenches with them. Enough of the private performance, give the listener the "hook" of intimate participation--after all, who really wants to look in from the outside?