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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Da Capo Chamber Players give New York and World Premieres: Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, November 16, 2004 (BH)

Robert Paterson: Sextet (1999) (New York premiere)
Alexandra Hermentin-Karastoyanova: Kastena (2003)
John Harbison: Songs America Loves to Sing (2004)
(New York premiere)
Dai Fujikura: Poison Mushroom for solo flute and tape (2003)
Serge Tcherepnin: look up firefly the night is calling (2003)
(New York premiere)
Chinary Ung: Oracle (2004) (World premiere)

Da Capo Chamber Players
Patricia Spencer, flute
Meighan Stoops, clarinet
David Bowlin, violin
André Emelianoff, cello
Blair McMillen, piano
Guest Artists: Tom Kolor and Pablo Rieppi, percussion; Matthew Cody, conductor


Perhaps the most surprising find of this eye-opening evening was the beautifully accomplished work by the twenty-three-year-old Serge Tcherepnin, son of Ivan Tcherepnin (1943-98), and winner of the week’s most eye-catching title, derived from a poem by Lama Fakih called “The Intifada in Rhapsody.” Tcherepnin was inspired by fireflies “as flickering sparks, magically yet naturally emerging from the darkness,” and this dreamy work is as romantic as its title suggests. It would be unfair to pigeonhole this study as “neo-romantic” since Tcherepnin’s ear catches many different sonorities, but it does appear to be the overriding sensibility. Da Capo, seemingly with one heartbeat, expertly sketched his flickering textures, and the audience responded with delight, asking the young composer to stand several times.

The concert opened with Robert Paterson’s entertaining Sextet, inspired by “television shows that expose people in the act of committing crimes,” perhaps referring to Cops, a long-running and popular show in the United States. With periodic and startling whistle blasts, the format covers a criminal’s day of running from the police, traveling by car, breaking out in a cold sweat in a motel and finally getting caught, after a colorful rumba chase scene. This was immediately followed by Ms. Hermentin-Karastoyanova’s Kastena, a short duet with some warmly felt playing from David Bowlin and André Emilianoff.

John Harbison has written some evocative music such as the Mirabai Songs (on Dawn Upshaw’s recording, The Girl with Orange Lips), and his opera based on The Great Gatsby. This highly enjoyable set, evoking Currier and Ives’ scenes of a family gathered around a piano, might have been the audience favorite of the evening. Harbison uses songs such as “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome” (among others) as a springboard for his riffs, with moving results. The format alternates between songs presented as solos, and canons for the entire ensemble, with Blair McMillen’s alert fingers at the keyboard as the “glue” holding it all together, and I particularly enjoyed Meighan Stoops’ timbre here, somehow evoking the past. The result is something more than mere “arrangements” of these tunes, as if gazing at old sepia photographs that have been transported to the 21st century but with bits of data either changed or missing. (I got a bit of amusement imagining the Da Capo musicians materializing in someone’s parlor at Thanksgiving.) Harbison archives the original melodies fairly intact, yet tweaked with slight harmonic and rhythmic adjustments, landing the listener in a place fairly distant from those iconic American homes.

Patricia Spencer brought an entirely different mood to the table with Dai Fujikura’s solemn ode to the bombing of Hiroshima. In the composer’s sober notes, this passage stood out: “One year [at school] I remember this talk: a survivor told us that everyone was jumping into the river after the bomb was dropped. Because of the searing heat, everybody wanted to be doused. They didn’t know the water in the river was boiling.” If some of Penderecki’s masterpiece, the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima seemed to appear here and there, this is praise. Ms. Spencer’s calm composure onstage contrasted sharply with the sometimes-bilious clouds of sound she produced.

The final work – and it was a difficult one – was elucidated by guest conductor Matthew Cody, founder of Los Angeles’ Lontano Music Group and now working in New York. Chinary Ung’s shimmering score asks the musicians to sing, chant and whistle while they are playing, which is not as easy as it sounds, especially for extended periods. (Go ahead -- you try to do it.) Ung writes challenging music, yet with exquisite balance and grace, articulated by lots of percussion, here masterfully handled by Tom Kolor and Pablo Rieppi. Cody seemed especially well prepared for the work’s multiple challenges, completely inside the composer’s idiom, and subtly drew together the entire ensemble in a slowly evolving sound picture. The work’s shifting moods did indeed make one think of a prophecy, and its perhaps unexplainable yet grave news.

Bruce Hodges

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