This afternoon the Center for New Music (C4NM) offered its final concert for this calendar year. Violinist Kate Stenberg and pianist Lisa Moore joined forces to present a program entitled Time Flies, a title that was rich in both ambiguities and connotations. The two of them performed as a duo for only the opening and closing works on the program, which lasted a little more than an hour. In between Moore performed two piano solos, accompanying herself vocally during the second. Stenberg’s two solo pieces both involved “electronic assistance;” and the second was performed before a projected film.
Both words of the title came into play during the opening duo, Somei Satoh’s “Birds in Warped Time II.” Satoh’s music was one of the ways I kept in touch with past listening pleasures during the four years I spent in Singapore. When I returned to California in August of 1995, I thought that I would finally be able to appreciate his music in performance, rather than on recording; but, unless I am mistaken, this afternoon was my first opportunity to enjoy such a concert experience.
Listening to his broad arcs of violin passages performed against piano tremolos, one could almost think that the opening measures of Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto were in the back of Satoh’s mind while he was working on this piece; but Sibelius never “appeared” in any form other than passing shadows of tropes. Far more engaging were the different approaches to portamento required of the violinist, almost as if the melody line was constantly recalibrating itself, perhaps adjusting to changes in context coming from the piano. Stenberg and Moore were clearly listening to each other acutely, which was critical to a process in which, in terms of sonority, Moore was providing the background for Stenberg’s foreground. The result was thoroughly engaging, reminding me of just how much I missed listening to Satoh’s compositions.
The concluding duo, Martin Bresnick’s “Bird as Prophet,” also involved suggested references to the past. The very title comes from the seventh piece in Robert Schumann’s Opus 82 suite, Waldszenen (forest scenes). This piece has only a few motifs, at least two of which are richly transformed by Bresnick almost (but not quite) to the point where they cannot be recognized. The first of these is Schumann’s attempt to evoke a bird call; but there is a good chance that Bresnick had other sources of such evocations in mind, like those of Olivier Messiaen. Whether or not any of those birds ever take flight is left for the listener to decide for himself/herself, but the avian connotations provide more than enough content to engage the attentive listener.
Moore’s first solo was the second of Philip Glass’ piano études. These pieces have been getting a generous amount of exposure both in performances and on recordings. What was most memorable this afternoon was how Moore found her own voice behind the “exercise patterns” that Glass had conceived. Her dynamic range was distinctively wide; and, when combined with a flexible approach to rhythm that warped a steady beat, her establishment of climax became far more dramatic than one would expect to find in a technical study. Of course there are any number of pianists who go for the dramatic in any number of études by any number of composers. Most of those pianists come off as if they were chewing the scenery, but Moore seems to have succeeded in finding just the right sweet spot between full focus on technique and reckless overacting.
In contrast to the technical discipline behind Glass’ étude, the surface structure of “Sliabh Beagh” (Gaelic for “borderlands”), composed by Moore’s fellow Australian (but not relative) Kate Moore and receiving its West Coast premiere, dramatic rhetoric served as the essential core of the performance. This was clear from Moore’s vocal accompaniment during the opening passage. The composer dedicated this piece to her grandfather and his Irish heritage, while the pianist explained that, for her, the piece was an opportunity to connect with her own Irish heritage. Even without explicit knowledge of that heritage, one could readily appreciate the intensity of the music’s expressiveness.
Stenberg’s first “solo” (scare quotes to be explained) was Amy X Neuburg’s “Nonette.” The piece was originally conceived as an overlay of nine separate tracks, all recorded by Stenberg. However, this afternoon Stenberg played one of those tracks “live,” making the piece a solo that was not quite a solo. She seems to have chosen that track judiciously, since it benefitted from the “foreground affordance” of being seen rather than just heard. However, the strength of the score resided in the intricacy of its interleaving lines; and these probably registered all the more clearly in a concert setting than they would on a recording.
Stenberg’s second offering was Michael Gordon’s “Light is Calling.” This involved performing against synthesized bell-like sounds derived from taking electronic pulses of varying envelopes and playing them backwards. The music was performed in conjunction with a film made by Bill Morrison, who reprinted and re-edited a very old movie (The Bells from 1926) that had suffered considerable deterioration (hence, Gordon’s interest in bell-like sounds). The score arose from the composer’s personal reflections on the aftermath of 9/11, and these were sufficiently well expressed that the film turned out to be more of a distraction from the composer’s voice than a contribution to it. However, if this was a weak side of the program, it certainly did not detract from all of the other offerings.