An unaccompanied violin recital is a daunting proposition. Without pianistic relief, the listener can tire of the nonstop bariolage. Sans sparring partner, the fiddler is left without a safety net. “Roadmaps and Diaries II,” a touring program devised by electric violinist extraordinaire Monica Germino, split the difference in a performance at Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., on April 7, 2014. This was emphatically a solo affair, but Germino was in constant interplay with a host of spectral doppelgängers – “multiple Monicas,” as the subtitle to Julia Wolfe’s With a Blue Dress On puts it – with most of the pieces calling for back-tracking and the AV wizardry of Frank van der Weij. Ironically, the lone exception was Louis Andriessen’s bracing XENIA. Germino was a member of the Asko Ensemble during the nineties, cutting her teeth on works like Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer. After she embarked on a solo career, the Hague School padrone wrote La Passione and La Girò for her “trembling violin with electric strings.” Yet “Roadmaps and Diaries II” is Germino through and through: this isn’t the Andriessen aesthetic, not really.
First up was Donnacha Dennehy’s Overstrung, a pleasant enough Violin Phase-meets-Sciarrino’s-Sei caprici concoction. As in Reich’s “counterpoint” series, dramatic interest was generated by the ambiguity between the real-time and the electronically mediated, the live Germino darting in and out of a pre-recorded sonic tapestry that sometimes veered off into high, unstable harmonics. As in Grisey’s viola Prélude, the denouement came in the form of a violent scratch tone, a predictable stroke perfectly in keeping with the rest of this derivative brew. And the less said about Kate Moore’s Dolorosa, the better. An insipid modal tootle, it was the first of three pieces utilizing Germino’s trademark sing-and-play technique. (Anyone familiar with Carla Kihlstedt’s work will have experienced the technique.) The music was demanding in an understated sort of way, calling for extensive vocal incantations and practice-muted string playing, sempre senza vibrato. Germino has the difficult acrobatics down cold, neither voice nor fiddling ever unpleasantly gawky, but the exertions were wasted on music bereft of substance or imagination.
A multi-tracked explosion of an old-time fiddle tune, Wolfe’s Blue Dress made more apt use of Germino’s uninflected vocal stylings, here augmented by bluegrass “chops” and foot stomps. Once again Reich’s shadow reared its head: this was Vermont Counterpoint as reimagined by Alan Lomax. Blue Dress is a dazzling showpiece for ear and eye alike, and Germino dug into her instrument with rude ferocity. But there were no surprises. Where was the composer of the visionary Stronghold?
Last was an arrangement of Michael Gordon’s Industry, one of the classic statements of the Bang on a Can ethos. (Once heard, Maya Beiser’s recording of this disturbing music is not easily forgotten.) Sadly, the adaptation didn’t contribute anything not already present in the original. Instead, the cello’s trademark treble register intensity was lost, replaced by an extra layer of processing that transformed the violin into a chintzy, King Crimson-style shred guitar. Gordon ought to pen an original work for Germino; her talents are tailor-made for him.
The “Roadmaps and Diaries II” press materials describe the program as “a revolutionary take on the solo violin recital.” There’s no denying der Weij’s sonic creativity and Germino’ssui generis technique, but a truly “revolutionary” recital requires repertoire worthy of the name. A bad performance is forgettable, a great one squandered on dubious music a shame. This was like Prometheus trying to steal Zeus’ fire in gale force winds.
Roadmaps and Diaries II
Donnacha Dennehy: “Overstrung” (2010)
Kate Moore: “Dolorosa” (2014) WORLD PREMIERE
Julia Wolfe: “With a Blue Dress on” (2010)
Louis Andriessen: “XENIA” (2005)
Michael Gordon: “Industry” (1993, arr. 2008)
Monica Germino (violin)
Frank van der Weij (sound designer)
[Ed. Matt Mendez is covering the Andreissen 75 festival, a week-long celebration of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s 75th birthday, presented by The Atlas Performing Arts Center, Great Noise Ensemble, National Gallery of Art, Strathmore, and Shenandoah Conservatory, April 6-13, 2014. Andriessen’s XENIA will be repeated on April 8 and will be covered in Matt’s review of that concert.]