The last of four Music in Time concerts featured two works by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, a short piece for cello and piano by Gleb Kanasevich (a clarinetist performing in the Spoleto Festival), and a quirky six-verse Hungarian tone poem by Gyorgy Kurtag for clarinet, viola and piano.
"Shared Memory" by Andriessen, a piece published in 2012, was performed with grace and poise by oboist Xiaodi Liu and violinist Lisa Goddard. Structured as a two-part invention, it's based on the first six bars of the B minor Fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier I. The players expertly and evenly wove together their phrases, without fuss. The tonality was far from Bach's, offering instead gorgeous dissonances at many turns, but the sensibility was similar.
Kanasevich's "Installazioni/Moduli/Versi" was the most challenging work on the program, consisting of tense repetitions, plucked notes followed by sustained diads of a minor second or major seventh and lots of cello playing in very high registers. For the last part of the piece, the piano provides a base of rumbling, low chord clusters over which the cello pretends it's a wound-up violin that must insist on producing high-pitched, long-held notes, over and over.
The piece, inspired by the work of painter-sculptor Ellworth Kelly, attempts (though I'm not sure it succeeds) in mimicking Kelly's vertical and horizontal shapes and Color Field imagery, which, Kanasevich explained unconvincingly, functions to compress time.
Cellist Marybeth Brown-Plambeck and pianist Renate Rohlfing tried their best to illustrate all this, playing this difficult work with admirable confidence and skill.
Third on the program was Kurtag's "Hommage to Robert Schumann," a series of five very short, charming and inventive musical expressions followed by a final, longer farewell movement. Esoteric references were made, apparently, to Schumann (I thought of his wonderful Kinderszenen, or "Scenes from Childhood," a set of 13 short, evocative pieces), but if the "Hommage" paid tribute to the older master, it never abandoned Kurtag's modernist Hungarian musical language.
It was performed wonderfully, with visible delight (and concentration), by Kanasevich on clarinet, Zsche Chuang Rimbo Wong on viola and Rohlfing on piano.
The best was saved for the end: Andriessen's "De Volharding" ("Perseverence"). This was the first piece the composer wrote after the premiere two years earlier of his "The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven," heard during a recent Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra concert.
Music in Time series organizer John Kennedy explained that that the Beethoven medley, while well-received and clever, traumatized Andriessen, who suffered a composer's identity crisis.
Two years later, he produced "Perseverance," a triumphant expression of stubbornness, protest, socialism, innovative harmony, rich musical texture and sheer physical endurance.
It's a "process piece," Kennedy said, meaning that the musicians - three trumpet players, three saxophone players, three trombone players and one pianist - are granted certain freedoms (dynamics, pitches, articulation and more) yet confined by a set of guidelines.
It began with a rapid-fire articulation of one or two or three notes on the piano (Conor Hanick) that established the rhythmic thrust and general tonality. The brass players entered one at a time after Hanick got going, then began to make their own assertive, driving, noisy contributions until the whole ensemble was blaring away, fast and furious, sweat starting to drip from a few brows.
Encouraged to cheer them on, the audience periodically burst into applause, as if this were a jazz concert. Well, it was a jazz concert.
The harmonic shifts were clearly discernable but not exactly executed with precision - on purpose. The piece didn't proceed neatly from section to section, it mutated. But it did move forward with inexorable energy and commitment. In this way it was a musical reflection of a socialist ideal, which holds that we're all in this boat together: you row at your pace, I'll row at mine, but let's please keep the vessel moving along and in a relatively straight line. What you do affects me, like it or not, and what I do influences you, so it's best to find a way to cooperate.
Andriessen, 75, once rebelled against what he considered musical conservatism and has taken an interest in the politics of Holland, according to Kennedy. My guess is the socialist nature of this piece is deliberate.
"Perseverance" lasts about 20 minutes or so, which is a pretty long time to blow a machine-gun succession of notes through a brass horn or to pound a keyboard with quickly alternating fingers. By the end of the piece, a new syncopation and some actual sloping melodic phrases were introduced, heightening the energy and excitement another notch. It provoked more hoots and claps from the audience.
Then "Perseverance" ends, with a heaving sigh and big smile from the players and a rapturous standing ovation from the listeners.
It was very groovy.