On Friday, May 27, 2016, the DiMenna Center opened its doors to a moderate but dedicated crowd of supporters, who had come to take refuge from the dissipating evening heat and hear the conclusion of Kettle Corn New Music‘s fourth season. The event marked the first collaboration between Kettle Corn New Music and the spirited New York/New Haven based vocal-chamber ensemble, Cantata Profana, also rounding off their fourth season. What ensued made for a clear indication that the forthcoming fifth season of each of these flowering, young ventures must be eagerly anticipated and will assuredly be well worth supporting. The program, sweetly entitled “Alice in Wunderbar,” tread a quasi-chronological path through a series of four emotive and ambitious chamber works, the latter three of which were emanations of folkloric and fairytale idioms.
Cantata Profana wasted no time in establishing a clear picture of their ability and accomplishment as thoughtful chamber players with Anton Webern’s 1923 arrangement of Arnold Schönberg’s wonderfully lyrical Kammersymphonie No. 1 (Op. 9). Each was deeply engaged not by their own part but in the work as a whole, in collaboration functioning as a precise unit powered by a striking heartbeat of artistry and conviction that transcended the mere mechanism of strong playing and effortlessly took hold of the attention of the listener. The synchronization of the players shone most strikingly in those moments of sparsity in the orchestration that made way for the subtle emergence of a delicate tone from the clarinet, a sultry low pitch from the flute or a hovering high note from the violin, sustained like a glassy filament suspended between esoteric arpeggios in the upper range of the piano. The fluidity of these overlapping elements seemed to suggest on a granular level Schönberg’s overarching symphonic structure, which proceeds through traditional style movements without pause, one section emerging from another continuously.
Following this strong opening, Cantata Profana pianist Lee Dionne was joined by mezzo-soprano Kate Maroney in a performance of György Ligeti’s Három Weöres-Dal (Three Weöres Songs). An analogous programming choice in many ways to Schönberg’s Kammersymphonie, this early work (composed in 1946) predates the groundbreaking oeuvre for which Ligeti ultimately became known, infusing great influence from his predecessors and countrymen, perhaps most apparently that of Béla Bartók, with shades of Stravinsky throughout. Maroney’s skillful and enthralling performance brought the charming poetry of Sándor Weöres to life, supported brilliantly by Dionne’s thoughtful collaboration. Ligeti’s sprightly engagement of the text seemed to emanate from the very structure of the words themselves, at once translating the cadence of the Hungarian language into kinetic musical phrases while conveying a suggestion as to the meaning of the words.
Perhaps in keeping aligned with the theme of presenting early works, the next piece on the program and the evening’s sole world premiere came from youthful composer-cum-producer Alex Weiser, a founding member and co-artistic director of Kettle Corn New Music. Weiser’s Three Epitaphs called for the expansion of the ensemble to fill the space all around the audience with small antiphonal cells of instruments, conducted from a far corner by Cantata Profana’s Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth. Kate Maroney returned to center stage as a guide through Weiser’s settings of alternately tragic, cautionary and optimistic poetry by William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and an excerpt of text from the famous Song of Seikilos, one of the few known surviving examples of notated ancient Greek music. While no real context yet exists from which to categorize Weiser’s Three Epitaphs as ‘early’ (aside from the composer’s age, roughly the same as Ligeti was when he composed the previous work in the program), the indications of a strong, emerging voice infused with a sophisticated ear and knack for evoking luscious textures and imaginative yet approachable harmonies from the ensemble inspire optimism that this young composer will have much more to say in the coming years.
The final work in the program, Unsuk Chin’s Akrostichon-Wortspiel (Acrostic Wordplay), doubled as the night’s ambitious and explosive pièce de résistance, and further illuminated the continuing themes explored in the programming including fairytales, early works, and the prevalent influence of previous generations; quite literally in this case, as Chin studied composition with György Ligeti in the years leading up to the creation of the concert’s closing work. The piece called for the largest manifestation of the ensemble to assemble at center stage and consisted of seven movements for soprano and orchestra, each depicting invented fairytale and folkloric tropes through wild musical gestures and the use of nonsense texts wildly emoted by the soprano — in one instance, for example, the vocalist rabidly inflected the alphabet to tell the story. Jessica Petrus joined the ensemble in this role, upholding the high standard established both by the instrumentalists of Cantata Profana and her compeer, Kate Maroney. Petrus sang beautifully, with strict control and expressive musicality, telling each phantom story with charming resolve.
The success of this program both in its thoughtful curation and remarkable execution is an exciting benchmark in the development of Kettle Corn New Music as a serious contender in presenting new music to New York City audiences. The pairing of this series’ efforts with its peers in Cantata Profana is a fusion of talent that begs, indeed indicates an upward trajectory in the coming fifth season of each.