It’s odd how people often are willing to rush to see the latest movie or buy the newest Apple device but hesitate to attend concerts of contemporary classical music. I suppose it’s fear of the unknown, a concern that one will be exposed as a troglodyte.
This turns out to be essentially an unfounded worry since new music, especially music written in the last 20 years or so, can be surprisingly accessible, melodic and fun. It can be full of feeling, awash in wit or pathos. It can speak directly to our emotions or intellect in ways anyone can appreciate.
This was certainly the case Friday evening at the Magnetic South concert, a presentation of College of Charleston composition professors Yiorgos Vassilandonakis and Edward Hart in collaboration with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The concert featured music by three living composers with ties to the Lowcountry, two of whom were in attendance, and the performance was alternately lithe, lyrical, percussive, and funky.
Richard Moryl, 84, sat in the front row of the Simons Center Recital Hall listening to his “Das Lied” from 1976, the most intricate and interesting piece on the program, and his “Salvos” for solo trumpet from 1969, which featured Michael Smith.
“Das Lied” was scored for soprano (the excellent Deanna McBroom), oboe, amplified contrabass and amplified piano, and two percussionists. The music, written in an unorthodox way, was projected above the stage for the audience to follow, a clever and revealing gesture. The piece uses the same Chinese poems, translated into German, that Mahler employed in his “Das Lied von Der Erde,” their lines sometimes spoken expressively, sometimes sung.
The work was evocative and even a little romantic, suggesting landscapes and longing, and offering moments of lyrical beauty that contrasted with the contrapuntal interchange of phrases among the instruments and singer.
Moryl’s “Salvos” was something else entirely, a sort of dialogue with oneself. Smith, who exhibited impressive range and technique, offered a musical abstraction of a crazy dude in the street who one moment mutters incomprehensibly and the next moment speaks lucidly. Or perhaps a better analogy is the kid who, examining his own face in the mirror, tries out a variety of expressions only to discover an unusual elasticity that fascinates him and encourages him on.
The program continued with a piece called “MRI” by Richard Maltz, commissioned for the ocassion. It was inspired by the composer’s encounter with the medical machine and riffed mainly on two major chords that exposed the overtone series. This was “Minimalism,” with its repeating patterns and simple melodic lines. It was as if the patient, feeling claustrophobic, decided to whistle a few tunes, tap the table rhythmically and hum in an effort to distract himself from the noises and discomfort.
The concert concluded with a piece by John Kennedy, resident conductor of Spoleto Festival USA. His composition, “Passages,” was an expressionistic illustration of time that hinted at the way we change while staying the same.