The famous “face-vase” optical illusion, known as the Rubin vase, helps humans perceive images created through negative space. Huang Ruo’s “The Lost Garden,” which kicked off Spoleto’s Music in Time series Saturday, achieved the same thing through a dynamic performance with members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra.
The strings screeched. The chimes danced. The musicians occasionally even chanted to bring life to the piece’s theme of lingering memory. It all coalesced into a blurry sound-fog that ended with three of the players exiting the stage and softly playing into the crowd as the lights dimmed to complete darkness. It didn’t feel theatrical. It felt like slipping into a dream.
As Ruo conducted, the open spaces in his composition helped color the more exciting passages – just like a Rubin vase. Each interlude drifted into the next, like a cloudy marathon of subconscious images.
The show’s other three works showcased that negative space, too; Ruo’s first piece, “Wind Blows,” found him clunking out thick piano chords as Chen Bo muscled wind through the sheng, a traditional Chinese instrument as gorgeous as black crystal.
After, young flutist and composer Zach Sheets performed his solo work, “That Colors the Stone,” and his sharp intakes of breath created their own separate score alongside the actual music – coupled with the gentle sounds of his fingers clacking the instrument keys.
Gleb Kanasevich’s rendition of composer Valentin Silvestrov’s “Misteroso” found him doubling up on instruments, one hand striking a piano key while the other shaped the same note on his clarinet. As the two pitches met, he bent one against the other, vibrating them to a wobbly peak of power.
Nothing was as gripping as “The Lost Garden,” which Ruo said was loosely connected to his opera “Paradise Interrupted,” currently playing at the Memminger Theater. Both involve inner refuges, Ruo said, and finding places that can be sanctuaries. It’s all about how you’re looking — or in this case, listening — for them.
Patrick Hosken is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.