It can be fun to listen to a cover band, but nothing can match the experience of being in the presence of the music’s originators.
On Friday night, in the Simons Center Recital Hall, a diverse audience of students, Charleston Symphony patrons and explorers were treated to an entertaining program of music by living composers, two of whom were in the house.
The concert was part of the Magnetic South series, a joint project of the symphony and the College of Charleston’s School of the Arts. Established last school year by Edward Hart and Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, both composers and professors of music at the college, the series is meant to be a showcase of contemporary classical music.
This program was a pleasant surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been: not all new music is esoteric or atonal, right? These pieces were all perfectly comprehensible, interesting and fun to hear.
First up was “Dessau Dances” by Gordon “Dick” Goodwin, a professor at the University of South Carolina who once taught Hart how to write music. The piece, he explained in a talk before the show, is based on an actual dance hall outside of Pflugerville, Texas, where Goodwin himself once performed.
The boys would make a circle, the girls would make another circle, and the promenade music would send them revolving in opposite directions. When the music stopped, each participant would pair up with the nearest partner, and they would dance to the band’s next tune.
“Dessau Dances” is Goodwin’s version of a Schottische, Waltz and Polka, with promenade introductions added in. Originally scored for piano and cello, it was presented here in a new arrangement for chamber orchestra, and it worked beautifully. It was hard to resist tapping one’s feet.
It’s not for no reason that Goodwin referred to Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” during the talk. His piece was reminiscent of that earlier work in its delicate orchestration, clear melodies and counterpoint, musical lilt and humorous character. It included recognizable Americanisms — a touch of hoe down, a bit of traveling circus and a slide trombone thrown in for good measure.
The most challenging piece on the program was Louis Karchin’s “Four Songs on Poems by Seamus Heaney. This was a world premiere of a Magnetic South commission, and it featured soprano Deanna McBroom, director of the voice program at the college.
This was an expressive and difficult set of songs, handled by McBroom with aplomb. The poetry was projected on the wall behind the stage so listeners could follow the words, which seemed destined to be set to music.
“And it is not particular at all. Just old truth dawning,” Heaney writes. “There is no next-time-around. Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.” Now that’s lyrical, and it could have been so easy for a composer to obscure these magnificent words with music that’s too assertive.
Karchin’s music, instead, complemented the poetry, even with its intense lyricism, angularity and dynamic range. And McBroom delivered, digging into the piece with head and heart.
Last up were three pieces by Myroslav Skoryk, a highly respected Ukrainian composer who came to Charleston for the occasion. His music is lovely, essentially tonal, full of melody and rhythm and flavored with Slavic seasoning.
The “Partita No. 7 for Strings” was something of an homage to Bach with its dotted rhythmic figures, gushing strings, formal structure and clear themes. It sounded vaguely baroque.
“Melody” was originally written for a movie called “High Pass,” but it was so popular that it has been extracted from the film, arranged and rearranged (by Skoryk and others) for various instruments and played so often it might as well be the Ukraine’s national anthem.
Who said contemporary music had to be difficult? “Melody” made me think of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” It’s that kind of piece.
The program ended with the “Diptych” for strings, which had two movements, Lamento and Perpetuum mobile. Again, hints of the baroque could be detected. Again, the strings sang and soared. Again, Slavic sensibility mixed with an imaginative respect for other styles, especially American blues, with its flatted third, and a bit of jazzy pizzicato in the bass and cello.
To be sure, there was no mosh pit in the recital hall, but the performers, ably conducted by Vassilandonakis, nevertheless kept the audience on its toes.