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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Live: At Duke, a day of sacred and secular new music

Posted by on Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 11:46 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF BOSTON LYRIC OPERA
  • Photo courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera
For those local classical music fans who prefer to listen to music by the still-living rather than the long-dead, April is not so cruel. Of late, we’ve had Brooklyn Rider deliver vivid new work by composers Evan Ziporyn and Colin Jacobsen; an enlightening residency from Alexander Goehr, the elder statesman of British modernism; and an evening devoted to new work by UNC faculty composers  This Thursday, Caroline Shaw, one year out from winning a Pulitzer, plays Cat’s Cradle Back Room; head over to Duke that same night and hear the premiere of David Kirkland Garner’s soprano saxophone concerto. 

Last Sunday was another new music double-header, this time solely at Duke: in the afternoon, the U.S. premiere of James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion; in the evening, a grab-bag of French cabaret tunes playfully re-configured by Duke graduate student composers. The juxtaposition of sacred and secular, of referential and not-so-referential, was striking. So was the quality of the music.

A disclaimer, though, before delving into MacMillan’s work: At the gargantuan Duke Chapel, I sat behind a pillar and didn’t take notes. I was initially there just to witness, not to report, but the powerful impression of the music warranted a response. With an obscured view, and halfway down the lengthy cathedral space, it wasn’t an ideal sonic experience. It wasn’t a poor one, either. MacMillan tends to paint in broad strokes, creating choral and orchestral effects that accrue force as they resonate down the pews. Individual lines may have been occasionally lost in a wash, but that wash conveyed the spirit of the drama. The grandness of the sacred spectacle felt more natural in the cathedral than the concert hall.

St. Luke Passion was a mammoth undertaking, a collaboration between a half-dozen international institutions and the centerpiece of a multi-year partnership between Duke Divinity School and the University of Cambridge. MacMillan, a prominent Scottish composer, has been working through his Catholicism in both instrumental and vocal works for decades. Like Bach, he is now the author of two Passions—there is also the 2007 St. John, available in an excellent recording by the London Symphony  Presenting the U.S. premiere of the St. Luke was a major coup for Duke. Packing a cathedral that seats almost 2,000 people for a 70-minute piece of new music was its own feat.

Unlike MacMillan’s St. John Passion—and the two most famous historical passions, Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew—MacMillan’s St. Luke does not follow the traditional alternation between a narrative choir and soloists representing the key figures in the story of Jesus’s death. Instead, the chorus—here, represented by the combined forces of the Duke University Chapel Choir, Durham Children's Choir, and Riverside High School Sirens— takes the weight of the drama on its own. The choruses and orchestra sounded great. I can’t say much about the conducting style of Rodney Wynkoop, as I could not see him; but the performance was assured and, at times, even taut despite the booming setting.

Passions typically center on the Gospel texts that tell of the final days of Jesus; MacMillan frames the story with a prelude focusing on the annunciation, and an ethereal postlude dramatizing the resurrection and ascension. The work opens with a dissonant, solemn choral exclamation, accompanied by roiling percussion. A little over an hour later, the voices of the children’s choir slowly die away through a profoundly moving decrescendo. Between those poles, austere choral writing alternates with piquant fanfares in the brass and the startling turgidity of the organ. MacMillan weaves iconography into the music, with chords and motives embedded with numerological significance. Keening layers of string glissandos represent the cooing of doves. Knowing the program or discerning the text, though, wasn’t necessary, as the music was clear and immediate on Sunday, the tale just as operatic as it was in Bach’s hands.

Two hours later, a more intimate and iconoclastic affair played out at Duke’s Baldwin Hall. In conjunction with an exhibit on campus [duke new music ensemble] assembled a program of new works—all by Duke PhD composers—that reimagined fin de siècle Parisian cabaret tunes. This was my third time experiencing the program, which has been traveling through the area; the first was an ill-fated encounter between the ensemble and a teeming mass of undergraduates at Duke’s annual library party, and the second was a set for Sunday brunchers at Fullsteam last weekend. As great as it is to get new music out of the concert hall and into the streets, Baldwin felt like the most appropriate setting for the proceedings: Despite the party premise of the music, the actual works’ crystalline textures demanded engaged listening.

Several works closely tracked French cabaret tunes before veering into unusual directions, like Vladimir Smirnov’s Matin and two works by Tim Hambourger, Le Picador est Mort and Tha-Ma-Ra-Boum-Di-Hé. (Hambourger also conducted.) Smirnov’s adaptation wrapped a charming lilt and Stravinsky-like harmonies around a midsection that was heavy on drums and post-minimalist groove. With its prominent clarinet and accordion, Hambourger’s Picador felt like it wafted over from a riverside café, until a violin cadenza segued into a weird, spectral conclusion. His latter contribution oompah-ed its famous source tune, with the ensemble relentlessly and clownishly hiccupping through a banal bit of melody.

Other works had more tenuous, but intriguing, links to their sources. Dan Ruccia’s Militaire et Mirliton offered a compelling slow burn, filled with a slinking noir piano, string murmurs and wind growls. In Impossibles, Jamie Keesecker embraced a reedy, airy sound world, with wispy melodic fragments punctured by low rumbles from the piano. In its balance of elegance and strangeness, it felt like modern day French neo-classicism, as if Arthur Honegger sat down to write at a computer in 2013. Strangest and most delightful was D. Edward Davis’s Dawn Song, where a series of sustained, slowly shifting chords bathed in a hazy glow of colors. It felt farthest from the theme of the evening but closer to another French musical tradition, akin to the synesthetic pastels of Ravel.

The affair ended in high style, with Ben Crawford’s L’Expulsion—a big, broad setting of the pompous anthem, begun as cutesy accordion solo (courtesy of Keesecker); as instruments gradually joined in, the harmonies tilted off kilter, dissonances piling. At Fullsteam, the instrumentalists passed out sheet music and the afternoon became a sing-along; here, with the audience simply listening, it felt just as raucous and wholly persuasive.

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