Very few classical music blogs are as popular as Sequenza21, and many blogs in that position would just stick to what they routinely do. Well, Jerry Bowles and his team don’t and with the funds they are able to raise through advertising, grants and donations, they produce occasional concerts such as the one that was presented at Joe’s Pub this Tuesday night (with the generous support of Manhattan New Music Project). The concert featured music by 9 composers performed by ACME (American Contemporary Music Ensemble), itself led by artistic director and cellist Clarice Jensen.
Wily Overture by Christian Carey opened the concert but also introduced the complete ensemble to the audience (it was indeed the only piece on the program written for the full ensemble). Written for string quartet, piano and percussions, the overture displayed a complex affect somewhere between a martial address, and a welcoming invitation. The angular lines, the luscious strings and the clever use of brushes on the drums were very effective.
After a brief appearance of Nancy Kleaver, the executive director of MNMP, Timo Andres performed David Smooke’s Requests for solo piano, a tensed piece incorporating elements of Jazz (a devilish, gut-gripping bassline) in between quieter episodes where Andres was sometimes playing chords while knocking on the piano with his left hand…
Most of the rest of the program was to be performed by the solid strings section of ACME (Yuki Numata, Caroline Shaw, violins/Nadia Sirota, viola/Clarice Jensen, cello) and started with Grand Dragon by Rob Deemer (no, this is not a Fred Ho piece). Part of a larger work written for the MacArthur Quartet inspired by the (deceptively naive) paintings of Julie Speed, Grand Dragon integrates slaves/protest songs as well as a slave owner’s song and “an ostinato pattern fashioned from We Shall Overcome.” As dark and disturbing as it might sound, the social and political undertones of this multilayered piece still found some relief in grotesque gestures, and bouncy folk tunes.
Other pieces for string quartet included Steal Away by Hayes Biggs (an excerpt from O Sapientia, with beautiful polyphony and deconstructed hymn-like melodies), Refuge by Sam Nichols (a kinetic and pyrotechnic piece activating all the registers of the instruments), or Nostos Algea by James Holt (a colorful piece with crystalline hemiolas, some exciting dramatic contrasts and intricate “additive” rhythms). Finally, Dale Trumbore’s How it will go… combined remarkable features: a clear narrative, a strong thematic cohesion, and an idiomatic writing for the strings. I particularly enjoyed the quaint charm of the piece, suggested, at times, by some ragtime borrowings. In the same witty vein, Linea Negra for solo marimba by Laurie San Martin was a seriously playful piece stressing inner symmetries with a strong sense of pulse.
The catchy instrumentation of Oracle Night by James Stephenson—viola and woodblocks/claves—wetted my appetite but the piece failed to convince me. I will give it a second listen and focus less on the interplay between the viola and the instruments. Similarly, Sixteen Lines by Robert Thomas did not deliver what I personally might have expected from a piece written in four movements alternating between marimba and vibraphone (a play on timbres?).
Finally, Slumber Music by Jay Batzner, with its long melodic lines drew a introspective mélopée brilliantly interpreted by Clarice Jensen on cello, accompanied by Andres at the piano.
Sequenza21’s program was bold and eclectic, and the choice of the renovated Joe’s Pub was sound. I still have to get used to the dining/drinking classical concert thing since it looks like a sustainable business model by now. Oh geez, I sound so old.
Thomas Deneuville, the editor of I care if you listen, is a French-born composer living in NY. Find him on Twitter: @tonalfreak