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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Polyglot Polyrhythms, The New York New Music Ensemble, Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, March 14, 2005 (BH)

Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958): Ablauf (1983/1988)
Dorrance Stalvey (b. 1930): Exordium, Genesis, Dawn (1990)
David Lang (b. 1957): Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993)
Jonathan Harvey (b. 1939): Piano Trio (1971)
Christopher Rouse (b. 1949): Rotae Passionis (1982)

The New York New Music Ensemble
Jayn Rosenfeld, flute
Jean Kopperud, clarinet
Stephen Gosling, piano
Linda Quan, violin
Christopher Finckel, cello
Guest artists:
Lois Martin, viola
Tom Kolor, percussion
James Baker, conductor


In an evening full of personnel roaming around seemingly doing everything but soliciting the audience to join in, it was worth the price of admission just to see two of New York’s best musicians, flutist Jayn Rosenfeld and violinist Linda Quan, tapping four automobile brake drums with sticks in David Lang’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing. In conceiving the piece, Lang asked himself, “…when classical composers write a piece of music, they are trying to tell you something that they are proud of and like about themselves…what would it be like if composers based pieces on what they thought was wrong with them?” [My emphasis.] The result is a sly, comic romp, using repeated phrases of six chords, with each set rhythmically slightly different from each other, resulting in clanking syncopations, or in the composer’s words, “ominous funk.” I’ve now heard this work live a number of times over the last decade, and recordings are available in versions by both Bang on a Can (Lang’s group) and the Illinois-based eighth blackbird. While Lang is too complex to be categorized as a hardcore minimalist, some Louis Andriessen influence is clear, in what is now probably one of Lang’s classics.

But tonight everyone was coveting everyone else’s instruments, or so it seemed. The opening of Magnus Lindberg’s Ablauf (for clarinet and percussion) was startling when pianist Stephen Gosling appeared, not at the keyboard but sentinel-like over a huge bass drum, with Tom Kolor whacking another with the feel of an ancient rite. Their sharp blows introduced Jean Kopperud on clarinet, who virtually lurched out of her chair creating some of the shrieking tones Lindberg requests. This skeletal exercise requires a player who can cut loose without embarrassment, including some brief, barking vocals, and the ever-adventurous Kopperud is just the woman for the job. Conductor James Baker also found drama in Exordium, Genesis, Dawn (written for this ensemble) although its creator, Dorrance Stalvey, may be even more renowned for his dedication to contemporary music. This year he marks his thirty-third year of directing a series called Monday Evening Concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Note to New York: not everything happens on the East Coast.)

Due to a photocopy error, some of Jonathan Harvey’s Piano Trio was inadvertently excised, so the group played the first movement twice, and this listener was all the happier for it, especially when the performers were Ms. Quan and Mr. Gosling joined by cellist Christopher Finckel. Quick high-pitched notes and long drones seem to correspond to Harvey’s affinity for electronic sounds, resulting in a work that must have seemed a bit ahead of its time in 1971. Experiencing it in 2005, it might have more in common with the so-called spectralists, at least after one hearing – and this intriguing score definitely deserves more than one.

To contemplate Rotae Passionis, the listener might mull over Christopher Rouse’s comments on the second of the three parts depicting the Fourteen Stations of the Cross: The effect for which I was striving was of the listener being strapped to a pew in a church and being forced to watch a slide presentation of each Station flashing by, with each change of slide symbolized by an immense wooden hammer blow. Again switching roles, Mr. Gosling had the pleasure of wielding a large wooden plank, with Ms. Rosenfeld playing chimes and vocalizing. Ms. Kopperud could also be found on various percussion instruments, after the opening section where she lowered the bell of her clarinet next to the timpani surface, creating an eerily groaning, sonorous wail. The title word “rotae” refers to the circular compositional structure, but could also to the physical rotation onstage of the players themselves. (The excellent violist Lois Martin did not appear to have as many travel duties as some of the others, but honestly with everything going on, I can’t be sure.) Mr. Baker’s assured leadership found the right balancing act between the solemn subject matter and the often piercing effects.

Bruce Hodges

(PS, in case you’re interested in performing the Lang at your weekly in-home salon, perhaps in the garage after fixing your car, the aforementioned brake drums were painted a metallic gold, which a knowledgeable percussionist explained was not for cosmetic purposes, but to prevent them from rusting.)


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