On Sunday, August 12, 2018, the Second Sunday Concert Series featured “Megan Ihnen and Alan Theisen present…” at the Boston Sculptors Gallery. This charismatic duo’s first full concert in Boston, entitled “This World of Yes,” explored the dichotomy of what it means to say yes. As Ihnen succinctly explained at the opening of the concert, “saying yes implies saying no to something else,” and each of the pieces curated on the program examined this theme.
Megan Ihnen and Alan Theisen’s joy for new music was immediately apparent as they welcomed the audience and gave easily accessible program notes for each of the pieces they performed, beginning with “Spring” and “Summer” from Michael Young’s cycle, Season’s Songs. The duo captured the Americana and serenity of these songs, infusing Theisen’s velvety, warm tone and Ihnen’s dark, vibrant timbre into the well-crafted melodic lines.
Also included in the first half were Anna Brake’s Silver Songs and Michelle McQuade Dewhirst’s miniature No Matter How I Go (Epitaph for Carrie Fisher). Brake’s songs call for audience participation, emulating the sounds of street noise, raindrops, and the din of a lunchroom. While each of these sound ideas has potential and the duo performed their parts with the utmost fluidity and technical command, the pieces themselves fell far from the mark. The pedestrian noises did not integrate in a meaningful way into the pieces, but rather served as naïve mimicry to the titles of each movement.
Meanwhile, McQuade Dewhirst displays great wit in her text setting and prowess for the miniature form. Avoiding the common pitfalls of kitschy text painting, McQuade Dewhirst masterfully integrates the saxophone and voice while still allowing the voice to shine through with the punch line of the text.
The third and fourth songs of Young’s Season’s Songs, “Fall” and “Winter,” closed the first half, creating a thoughtful curatorial bookend. Though varied in intent and profile, “Fall” and “Winter” maintained the same level of warmth and nostalgia of the first two songs, creating a beautiful overarching trajectory of the entire cycle.
With the same geniality that they displayed throughout the entire concert, Ihnen and Theisen broke with tradition and offered an audience Q & A instead of a regular intermission, which drew audience members into a more intimate exchange about the music. They filled a void that is usually lacking in new music concerts: the art of engaging the audience with the music, which is often equally as important as a great performance of the music. The duo deserves a standing ovation for their ability to connect with their audience and educate the public about the possibilities and diversity of what is new concert music today.
Following the audience Q & A, Ihnen’s performance of Aria by John Cage transfixed the audience through her seamless transitions between characters. Going far beyond the requisite “characters” that a singer chooses to assign each color in the color-coded score, Ihnen told a story through her perfectly choreographed body language and facial expression to match. She exquisitely embodied a breathy, flirtatious movie star, immediately juxtaposed by an angry Italian caricature, followed by a voice reminiscent of the nasal Charlie Brown teacher. Ihnen clearly took the time to develop each of the characters, creating a superb overarching journey that might otherwise seem disjointed to the new listener.
Also in the second half of the concert were Jessica Rudman’s Epilogue and Theisen’s own set of songs, When You Touch. With Rudman in the audience, Ihnen and Theisen delivered a delicate, sensitive performance, bringing clarity to the meaning of the text by Ovid. Their supple treatment of the lines and timbres showcased their softer, more introspective side to their performance wheelhouse. In sharp contrast, Theisen’s brash settings of erotic poems by E.E. Cummings unleashed the vixen in Ihnen. The pieces may have crossed a line from interpretive to indulgent in their setting of the text, but the duo once again delivered a virtuoso performance that left the audience at once awestruck and giggling like schoolchildren.
The duo’s closing piece, which has been the closing piece for every concert, was a duo version of Nick Zoulek’s From All of Our Love This Was Lost. Adapted from the haunting original version for solo signing saxophone, Ihnen and Theisen separated the voice and saxophone parts and performed them as a duet. Although exquisitely performed and poignantly staged, the piece itself lacked its original intrigue of the soloist performing both contrapuntal lines. While beautiful in intonation and phrasing, the piece missed the resultant tones and multiphonics that could only result from a person singing into their own instrument while playing, and the metaphor of the piece lost some of its profundity.
Though not all of the compositions were successful, this duo is destined for a splendid future. Ihnen and Theisen clearly share a passion for performing composers’ works, have a special talent for making personal connections with attendees, and are particularly gifted at their craft. Stay tuned for the next season of “Megan Ihnen and Alan Theisen present…”