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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Siren Songs, Ensemble 21 Elebash Hall, City University of New York, New York City, December 10, 2004 (BH)


Eric Moe (b. 1954):

Nocturne (1997)

Pulaski Skyway Waltz (2001)

Siren Songs (1998)

Jason Eckardt (b. 1971):

Echoes' White Veil (1996)

Performance (2001)

Mirror-glass skyscrapers (2004, World premiere)

George Crumb (b. 1929): Apparition (1979)

Ensemble 21

Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano
Marilyn Nonken, piano


It had been years since I’d heard George Crumb’s gorgeous Apparition, and fortunately Marilyn Nonken and Mary Nessinger offered an “aural how-to manual” in their precisely worked out finale to an evening of works for piano and voice.  Strumming the strings inside the piano, Nonken produced some heavenly droning sounds reminiscent of Indian ragas, setting the stage for Nessinger’s eerie, hypnotic vocalizing of portions of Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.  The singer uses all manner of techniques including humming and whispering, as well as some semi-percussive effects.  Crumb also asks the pianist to deliver some sounds outside the keyboard, made by softly tapping against the inside wood of the instrument, and without making too much of a tiny detail, Nonken’s resonant knocks added an exquisite color.  Written for Jan de Gaetani and Gilbert Kalish, Apparition might be one of the most notable pieces of the 1970s – it certainly seemed that way here, with Nonken and Nessinger keenly in tune with each other, delicately piecing together Crumb’s glistening, ghostly chambers. 



Echoes’ White Veil has no bar lines, offering the performer a bit of leeway in making phrasing decisions and shaping the material.  Mr. Eckardt makes no apologies for writing works that are dauntingly virtuosic, and indeed his work promises months of study for most pianists, as just a quick glance at the score reveals.  (See the first page in the appendices, below.)  Ms. Nonken has recorded the work, featured on her CD titled American Spirituals (highly recommended – see Musicweb review by Hubert Culot).  The piece is structured in roughly two sections, with the first quite fast and the second a bit calmer.  While I probably can’t persuade those who are baffled by Eckardt’s ecstatic, free-form study, I can say that after repeated hearings, the work grows even more interesting.  Most people hear new works once, and only once, which is unfortunate since works like Eckardt’s rarely reveal all of their secrets in one pass. 



His double-bill, Performance and Mirror-glass skyscrapers, are his first pieces for voice, and I enjoyed them quite a bit.  Performance, written by Les Murray in 1996 as part of a collection called Subhuman Redneck Poems, had Ms. Nessinger in sly form, stroking the edge of the score in narcissistic abandon.  Her voice sailing over the piano, she not only sang beautifully, but etched a telling portrait, deftly summed up in the final line which she delivered with a wan, flat tone: “As usual after any triumph, I was of course inconsolable.”  Mirror-glass skyscrapers follows without pause, with the pianist cavorting around as the soloist tackles mouth-tripping lines such as, “Annexed cubes ascend and blend at chisel points away high on talc-green scintillant towers.”  Mr. Murray has a striking ear, with his vivid language matched by Eckardt’s settings. 



The program began with compositions by Eric Moe, currently teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, beginning with his Nocturne and Pulaski Skyway Waltz for solo piano.  Moe’s language is sort of semi-tonal, and does seem underpinned by jazz elements.  Further, his language is altogether different from Mr. Eckardt’s, with perhaps each benefiting from the contrasts.  The Waltz was brusquely charming, with some swingy syncopations intended to emulate the rhythms of driving along the title subject (a raised highway in New Jersey, for non-U.S. readers), and Ms. Nonken here played authoritative tour guide, even finding a bit of humor along the road.  But I found Moe’s Siren Songs the most striking, with six texts from a diverse bunch, ranging from Dante’s “In the hour before dawn” from Purgatorio, to Richard Whitbourne’s “Eyewitness Account” from Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland.  Here are lines from the end of the third song, a setting of Paula McLain’s “Beauty, That Lying Bitch”:


Do your research: the siren is bird and beautiful,

But also a sea-cow, a salamander wearing its lungs

Like stunted wings, shriveled as spent sex.  Poor baby,

Here you were thinking ugliness only got as loud as you let it.


In a strong evening all around, Nonken and Nessinger made the most of these fascinating songs, intertwining with grace and fire, and seemed completely invigorated by the composer’s inspiration.  Nessinger commands excellent intonation and phrasing, and has an intense, almost baleful gaze, with piercing blue eyes that she uses to highly theatrical effect.  She compels one to listen.  Ms. Nonken – or rather, Dr. Nonken – regularly delivers some of the most probing performances of contemporary music that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.  If only all modern works could be presented by such intelligent and confident artists.

Bruce Hodges



Sample page from Echoes’ White Veil

Sequitur's page on Mary Nessinger

Les Murray's site

Eric Moe's site

And for the curious, photographs of the Pulaski Skyway by Raymond C. Martin, Jr.




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