On Wednesday, October 19, 2016 National Sawdust served as the forum for a youthful combination of forces between eminent young American composer Timo Andres and Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik. Including two world premieres by Andres and composer Michael Gandolfi respectively, Kutik and Andres curated an evening dedicated to music’s ability to transcend the expressive limitations of language. The concept and program were lifted from Kutik’s latest recording, entitled Words Fail and released on October 28 by Marquis Classics, for which the performance served as a makeshift release party.
Throughout a program designed to let the music speak in instances when language falls short, one might have expected to hear no speaking at all. However, immediately following the opening (Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words), Kutik broke that verbal silence with a lengthly description of the following work, Michael Gandolfi’s Arioso Doloroso/Estatico, commissioned by Kutik and the evening’s first world premiere. Indeed, the lack of a printed program at first seemed in alignment with the program’s message, but ultimately felt like an oversight for which the amount of banter between each work was an entirely unnecessary apology. Gandolfi’s work exhibited a strongly familiar character that came across as rather unremarkable, somewhat emphasized by the amount of explanation deemed necessary before the performance. Kutik’s playing wavered a bit in Gandolfi’s more complex passages, which felt reminiscent of virtuosic melismas found in early Baroque and Renaissance consort music. It was clear that there was no fault in Kutik’s superb technique or musicianship (already established in the Mendelssohn), but suggested instead that the composition lacked a sensitivity to the idiom and technique of the violin, reaching for an effect distilled out of form rather than practical function.
Andres spoke up next, introducing his own work, Words Fail, with a charming anecdote citing the discovery that he had not been the first composer to use the title, but was second to Janáček who had used the title over one hundred years prior in Book I of his cycle for piano solo called On and Overgrown Path. Andres was sure also to articulate the distinction between the two, in that Janáček’s version ends with an exclamation point. Andres’ piece truly lived up to its name, displaying qualities throughout that the clumsiness of words would only serve to confound or dilute. Emerging from mysterious, overlapping tonalities, the material of the work lay over a lilting topography of scales that seemed to melt rather than descend through various registers. There were moments reminiscent almost of ragtime, as accented octaves in the right hand of the piano (masterfully played by the composer himself) chopped through the primary material. The motive of melting scales never seemed to depart, however, being woven through the timeline of the work with subtle tenacity.
In pondering the limitation of language to adequately describe these sonic events, there was a certain point at which the piece evoked (for me) the image of a block of melting ice, suspended in darkness under a sparkling shaft of secret light — as the ice melted, it also sank slowly toward a reflecting pool of water that eventually consumed what remained, enveloping the block in a new environment made of the same substance in a transmuted form.
Kutik’s playing was superb, weaving in and out of Andres’ passages at the piano with a resolve equally transcendent of any words that could be chosen to describe it. As the patron of the work and collaborative champion in performance, Kutik seemed as much a part of the piece as the music itself.
Without introduction, the duo segued next into an arrangement of Janáček’s Words Fail! followed by a work by Andres’ contemporary and colleague Nico Muhly, called Compare Notes, which is also featured on Kutik’s recording. Muhly’s work displayed some stylistic camaraderie with Andres’ though it shone clearly in Muhly’s distinctive voice. The violin part in particular seemed to borrow the characteristics normally associated with the piano, ringing percussively in a bell-like cadence while the piano undulated linearly below.
To wrap things up, the duo delighted their attentive audience with the Suite Italienne from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. An undisputed master of going beyond words (indeed the only word for what it is that makes the master’s works so unique may be, according to the composer himself, his own name), little need be remarked beyond praise for a skillful performance.
For a program inspired by the inadequacy of words, there was a bit too much talking. That said, whether intentional or not, the evening’s discussion only served to emphasize the intended message, illuminating those works that truly could not or would not be compressed by a verbal description. In contrast with the evening’s crowd pleaser (yes, Pulcinella), Andres’ work was truly the highlight of the program; both thought provoking and beautiful, and firmly planted in a space in which words yield to the expressive capability of the music.