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Around the World: ModernWorks, Second Presbyterian Church, New York City, 23.05.2006 (BH)

Hilary Tann: Llef (1988, rev. 1990)
Sofia Gubaidulina: Dancer on a Tightrope (1993)
Traditional: Gyil Suite (West Africa)
Jan Muller-Wieland: Seven Bagatelles (1993)
Reza Vali: Folk Songs (1991)


Madeleine Shapiro, director/cello
Patricia Spencer, flutes
Eric Phinney, percussion
Ieva Siukstaite, violin
Cathlene Pineda, piano

Having surprised and delighted the crowd just a month ago with the appearance of an amplified cactus, the ever-imaginative Madeleine Shapiro gave a model demonstration of how to assemble an unusually interesting evening from a modicum of well-conceived ingredients. (It didn’t hurt, either, that she had a gaggle of very fine players to help.)

Born in South Wales, Hilary Tann now lives in the United States, but draws upon traditional Welsh sources for Llef, which has two meanings: it is a “cry from the heart” as well as a hymn tune, O! Jesu Mawr. This and a second hymn, Crimond, are used to mournful effect as the composer recalls coal miners in the valleys of her birthplace. Against sustained notes on the cello, the flute gently flickers above, and Madeleine Shapiro and Patricia Spencer gave it an emotional but not cloying reading, pensive but not dry – a moving tribute to those who often work in ferociously depressing and dangerous surroundings. Perhaps the recent mining disasters in the United States have heightened my sensitivity to this issue, but Tann’s evocative score moved me with its quiet passion.

Ieva Siukstaite is a student of Shapiro’s, and a violinist worth watching. She and pianist Cathlene Pineda plunged into Dancer on a Tightrope with a dogged focus that was almost a bit scary. Gubaidulina asks the pianist to brush the strings from the inside, then tap them with a small glass and fingers covered with thimbles, all creating delicate and harsh metallic effects. Ms. Pineda exuded complete calm, painting the composer’s slightly nightmarish world, from which the violin part seems to want to break free and escape. As the violin skates above (the tightrope image is uncanny), it eventually climaxes in some high string writing that Ms. Siukstaite navigated beautifully.

Moving on to a work from Africa, percussionist Eric Phinney spoke briefly about the traditional African xylophone called a gyil, a striking instrument from Ghana with a sort of hammock of various gourds spotted with white patches of spider webs. The sound is equally arresting: the luminous timbre of a traditional xylophone is underscored by a light buzzing. The suite is in three parts, with complex rhythmic patterns that demonstrated why Mr. Phinney is in demand. One can hear why Ligeti has been influenced by the patterns in the music, and one could hardly take one’s eyes off Phinney’s blur of hands.

German composer Jan Muller-Wieland has described his Seven Bagatelles as “tiny snapshots, particles of memory,” and in their brevity they recall Webern’s Bagatelles. But there any similarity ends, since Muller-Wieland apparently allows the performers considerable freedom in choosing the pitches. I first heard Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Phinney do this piece back in 2004, and it grows more interesting with each hearing – now trembling, now ominous (one movement sounds like a banshee wail), ending with nervous angst. In addition to the sheer pleasure of the score itself, I savored the rarity of hearing a contemporary work again, by experts growing increasingly confident as they get to know it more intimately.

Our world tour closed with Iranian-born Reza Vali’s Folk Songs, a dreamy landscape for flute and piano. During the course of this fascinating score, the cellist hums, taps the strings with a small stick, bangs a drum while bowing and at one point oversees a table of tuned water glasses, while the flutist has a turn on a tambourine. Vali’s effects, beautifully realized by Ms. Shapiro and Ms. Spencer, have a childlike glow that belies the difficulties awarded the performers, who must switch gears with each new section and explore sounds that lie in regions outside their primary expertise.

Bruce Hodges


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)