Thursday night’s New Music New Haven concert presented a long program of works, most of which involved text and other extramusical influences. Three faculty works followed an unusually varied series of pieces by School of Music graduate performers.
Shawn Crouch’s MUS ’02 “This Morning,” five settings of poems by Harriet Levin, featured a wonderful performance by mezzo-soprano Leah Wool MUS ’02 over inventive and effective writing for an unusual ensemble of oboe, bass clarinet, cello and percussion. Long held notes for the cello, sometimes isolated and sometimes developed, served as a unifying device between movements. Crouch’s endings were particularly well-managed, and the text setting achieved a good balance between the necessity of supporting the sung text and the danger of slavish and literal illustration.
Chia-Yu Hsu’s MUS ’02 “ParallElisme” for piano, played ably by Constantin Finehouse MUS ’02, featured outbursts of closely spaced chords alternating with Debussyan arpeggios and meandering two-part counterpoint. A turn-of-the-century French harmonic language vied with pianistic writing reminiscent of Liszt. Hsu’s “Whispers of Heavenly Death” for baritone and piano was an even more direct adaptation of Debussy’s pianistic and vocal writing.
Greg Spears’ MUS ’02 “Sweet” was more evidence that Spears possesses among the freshest and most inventive ears of any School of Music composer. A repeating simple piccolo melody is confronted by changeable instrumental textures, anchored by a glockenspiel and a pair of violas and augmented by a synthesizer. Soprano Amy Shimbo GRD ’05 and baritone Patrick Quigley MUS ’02 sang a Robert Herrick poem in a vocal idiom reminiscent of Steve Reich’s “Proverb.” It is only when one hears a truly memorable piece of new music that one realizes what a rare and rewarding experience it is.
School of Music professor Joan Panetti’s “– of the sea-tides of the soul,” a setting of three poems for piano and mezzo-soprano, was strongly reminiscent of the vocal music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Like those early 20th-century composers, Panetti combined an atonal harmonic vocabulary with an essentially Romantic artistic impulse. This combination worked well for the first two poems, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Abend” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Sound of the Sea,” but failed for Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.”
Panetti’s broad, almost bombastic setting of this last poem ignored not only the infinitely subtle rhythmic and phonetic content of the text but also, more importantly, negated the poem’s essential basis in awed humility. If Hopkins’ poetry is to be set to music, and one can argue that it should not, it must be treated with far more sensitivity and respect.
The featured composer on this month’s program was Matthew Suttor, a lecturer in composition in the Department of Music. Suttor’s “He Gives What He Likes” involved a computer program displaying various abstract graphics on a large screen, a live video feed of Suttor’s hand writing and drawing lines in a notebook, and excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” projected one word at a time over the whole thing. This visual component bore no obvious relationship to the music, an ambient-style electronic score derived from the sound of the African mbira; among the text, the graphics and the music, it was often unclear which was intended to take expressive precedence. The whole was strikingly reminiscent of Suttor’s earlier “Sarrasine,” which subjected passages from Balzac to the same treatment that the Ginsberg underwent here.
The second half of the program was the most compelling installment so far in a yearlong retrospective of the work of School of Music professor Martin Bresnick. Bresnick’s “For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise” is a brilliant, large-scale work for piano based on a set of short poems and engravings by William Blake. Much of Bresnick’s music exhibits the competing influence of Brahms and Ligeti, but in “For the Sexes” Brahms was the only recognizable influence. A harmonic language and pianistic technique reminiscent of the 19th-century master was exquisitely tinged by a steady insistence on the dissonant interval of the second, adding an extra affective flexibility that Bresnick handled with great virtuosity.
The enchanting music was accompanied by a DVD projection based on Blake’s engravings by the video artist Leslie Weinberg, directed by the composer’s brother Robert. Blake’s weird and foreboding engravings and poetry would have been a welcome addition to the music, but Weinberg’s injection of movement, color and abstraction was simply distracting. Pianist Lisa Moore, a well-known participant in the New York new music scene, gave a breathtaking performance both as pianist and as simultaneous reciter and singer of poetry.