Where nature inspires art

Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant has been performing in Spoleto Festival's Chamber Music Series this year.

The Spoleto Festival rightly gets noticed for its big productions: the operas, plays, dance shows and pop and jazz headliners. But some remarkable things happen during the daytime.

On Friday it snowed in the Simons Center Recital Hall. On Sunday, the Dock Street Theatre was submerged under ocean waters for 4 billion years, from the Archean to the Phanerozoic eon. And later that afternoon, a white-browed robin and polyglot mockingbird made a bit of a racket during the Music in Time recital.

If there was a common theme, it was trickster Nature herself, provoking (as she is often wont to do) composers and creators who ever seek to imitate her wondrous phantasmagoria.

Let's begin with Chamber Music Program VII, which featured George Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" ("The Voice of the Whale"), a mesmerizing piece from 1971, composed not long after Crumb heard scientific recordings of the songs of the humpbacks.

But he wasn't about to limit himself to imitating that; no, he was determined to evoke all of time, too, from the beginning of it (a solo flute vocalise) to the end of it (a note silently struck by flute, cello and piano).

Tara Helen O'Connor first played the piece in 1988, and she wanted to play it again now, according to series director and concert emcee Geoff Nuttall. And who was he to stand in her way? O'Connor didn't just play her flute, she sang into it, doubling the melodic line, she trilled her lips and her tongue to create oceanic effects, she sounded enormous wavelike melismas, she mimicked sundry sea creatures and, evoking Ellen DeGeneres in "Finding Nemo," she spoke whale.

She was in very good company. On alternatively-tuned cello was Chris Costanza, expertly generating whale whistles, seagull screeches and atmospheric underwater noises through the use of harmonics and other effects that actually were musical.

Pedja Muzijevic, who apparently can play anything, clicked and splashed in his grand piano, generating low rumbles and harplike flourishes, occasionally adjusting the pitch of a particular note by running a finger up and down a string.

But wait, there's more. They players were amplified. They performed wearing masks. The stage was lit blue.

Arguably, Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" is a little dated now (who hasn't yet marveled at the humpback's song?), but the piece certainly works its magic. My guess is Nuttall was being glib when he told us that his answer to O'Connor's request to program the piece was: "Why not?" He must have wondered how it would go over, whether those chamber music regulars would like it or merely tolerate it.

It should have closed the show, for it was the only performance that prompted an impulsive standing ovation. Who ever said chamber music patrons were stodgy?

But I am giving short shrift to the marvelous rendition of Mozart's Kegelstatt Trio for clarinet (Todd Palmer of course), viola (Masumi Rostad) and piano (Muzijevic) that preceded the Crumb.

These fellows must've made the powder-wigged maestro proud with their beautifully balanced, elegant interpretation, which was thankfully neither prim nor demure. This is top-drawer Mozart, and you can tell the little genius cared a lot about this piece, written at the instigation of his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler.

The program closed with mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant and the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing Ottorino Respighi's "Il tramonto," a through-composed setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "The Sunset."

It's a Romantic poem set to post-Romantic music that's fluid and lush and very beautiful. It concerns a woman whose lover wishes to view the sun for the first time but who died before getting the chance, an unfortunate turn of events that throws the woman into a lonesome madness.

Hellekant sang with her usual gifts for expression. She and the quartet traded phrases expertly, always staying close together in both articulation and mood.

Later, at the Music in Time recital, the young and virtuosic percussionist George Nickson and the similarly talented pianist Conor Hanick, both resident artists of the series, displayed some pyrotechnics unseen by most mortals.

Their shared program began with "It's About Time" by Nico Muhly, a young composer with a growing reputation based in New York City. It's scored for vibraphone, two wood blocks, high toms, small cymbals, kick drum, cow bell, snare, bass drum and gong, and it features lots of chordal interplay highlighted by lots and lots of dings and booms and thwacks and tocks and wooshes.

It's a lively and impressive show, extraordinarily difficult and complicated, and Nickson nailed it, with help from four mallets (two in each hand), incredibly precise aim and super-quick reflexes.

Hanick then gave the world premiere of a piece by his friend David Fulmer that was so new, it didn't come printed on paper. Hanick referred to his iPad while manipulating the piano and its various accoutrements such as pieces of rubber and a few carefully placed screws. This short piece was about timbre and how it can be manipulated in various ways.

Hanick proceeded to play the first of two bird-inspired pieces by Olivier Messiaen, who had seen the birds swooping and gliding through the grand American canyons of the West and decided to do something about it. "The White-Brown Robin" uses tone clusters, repeated patterns, dotted rhythms and song form to imitate - remarkably well - bird sounds. Frankly, it was kind of exciting.

Then it was Nickson's turn again, and this time he chose to play something even more difficult, Charles Wuorinen's "Janissary Music," a piece from 1966 that's informed by Serialism. It is scored for double vibraphone, 12 drums of various kinds and 12 metal instruments of various kinds. Why 12? Because there are 12 tones in the Western scale, of course.

Obviously this piece requires a performer with 12 arms and 12 fingers on each hand. How Nickson managed it I confess I'll never understand.

The piece was wacky, dissonant, complicated. Nickson reminded me of Spider-Man, swinging in slow motion, on his way to rescue the bound and gagged Mary Jane, but forced to tackle one villain and maneuver around the evil death rays of another in order to save a child from the teetering school bus before he can manage to reach his girlfriend in time to stop the superstructure from collapsing upon them both.

Nickson twisted and turned his torso, he shifted his feet, he reached behind him then spun round in order to sound the gong. It was freaky cool.

The recital ended with Hanick back on piano, playing Tristan Murail's "Cloches d'adieu, et un sourire," an example of Spectral music that explores sonic impressions, and another of Messiaen's avian tunes, "The Polyglot Mockingbird," which was even more impressive technically and musically that the Robin.

I could offer an extended description, but let this one suffice instead: It sounded a lot like birds.

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