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Midtown Sound: American Modern Ensemble, Tenri Cultural Institute, New York City, 14.10.2006 (BH)

John Cage: Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum Alone (1985)
Milton Babbitt: Overtime (1985)
Adam Silverman: Ricochet (2004)
Joseph Pehrson: Levitations (2001)
Robert Paterson: The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind (2004, New York premiere)
James Matheson: Pound (1999)
Melinda Wagner: Wick (2000)
Paul Moravec: Scherzo (2003, New York premiere)

American Modern Ensemble

Sato Moughalian, flute
Meighan Stoops, clarinet
Robin Zeh, violin
Victoria Paterson, violin
Junah Chung, viola
Dave Eggar, cello
Tom Kolor, percussion
Maya Hartman, piano
Eric Huebner, piano
Robert Paterson, conductor

Few composers had the sense of humor of John Cage, and Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum Alone is written “In Memoriam Marcel Duchamp” which should send a discreet signal that this is not music in the usual sense. One of the most meticulous percussionists on the scene, Tom Kolor is just the right man for this job, one that requires not only musical instincts but a bit of a blasé demeanor, as if the soloist had just rolled out of bed into the concert space. After soberly starting a timer (the piece lasts roughly ten minutes), Kolor began attacking the drum with sticks and wire brushes, as well as black fabric, a CD case, fingernails, a scrub brush, aluminum foil, and a long screw. At one point a cup of marbles is poured onto the surface, as well as some pasta (uncooked) that jumps about as the drumhead vibrates. There is also a single, grand page turn. If one’s ears don’t reach for this piece when one is in the mood for Xenakis or Brahms, no matter: Cage the philosopher repays the attention.

A different kind of wit followed in Milton Babbitt’s Overtime, played by the pianist Maya Hartman who found many more colors than I am used to hearing in this composer. Its sudden shifts even had a kind of playfulness, in keeping with the well-known drollery of its creator. The premise of Adam Silverman’s Ricochet, for viola, piano and clarinet, refers to string players hurling the bow against a string, creating a flurry of bouncing notes. Junah Chung’s viola figure set the pace, with Hartman and clarinetist Meighan Stoops following along, mimicking the string sound (inasmuch as a piano and clarinet can) with intriguing results, strangely calmer than the title might indicate. In a savvy bit of programming, the Silverman seemed spiritually linked to Joseph Pehrson’s Levitations, which followed. The levitating here began with arpeggios for viola and piano, in a mostly tonal landscape, rising to moments of glistening beauty, and again Ms. Hartman and Mr. Chung were most impressive.

Many listeners commented on Robert Paterson’s The Thin Ice of Your Fragile Mind, which sounds nervous but actually has some rather sweet ensemble phrasing, punctuated by percussive sounds, most notably some earthy bells. The latter were inspired by Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s pioneering desert complex begun in the 1970s to revolutionize the idea of community through ecological architecture. (Sales of Soleri-designed windbells help support the project.) And actually, in its icy way, Paterson’s piece espoused a serenity that might have paralleled the architect’s ideals. With Paterson conducting, and his wife Victoria on violin, the AME musicians captured just the right spirit, as if the listener were gazing up into a chilly night sky.

James Matheson’s Pound opens with a soft repeated note that grows like a beast, forming a kind of rhythmic spine, with whorls of accented notes that dance around it in a concept that only grows more chilling in its relentlessness. Eric Huebner, who was so expert in the Ligeti Piano Concerto last season, seemed doggedly immersed in the pummeling rhythmic patterns that only grow more and more fiendish. And more virtuosity followed, with a dazzling reading of Melinda Wagner’s Wick, with some marvelous, tense work from the AME players navigating its lightning-fast changes of texture and meter. An agitated opening subsides to a calm middle section using harmonics, before the energy rushes in again, in an ending that the AME players ignited beautifully. Sato Moughalian on flute, Dave Eggar on cello and Robin Zeh on violin combined with Huebner, Stoops and Kolor in the tightly knit ensemble. Paul Moravec’s exhilarating Scherzo is a jazzy wisp – somehow my mind leaped to the theme from Peter Gunn – and brought the evening to a sizzling close.

Given the program’s theme, a “midtown sound,” the evening left more unanswered questions than revelations about the issue, but it hardly mattered, since the “downtown vs. uptown” abyss seems to be slowly shrinking (and none too soon). In its wake, as this adventurous new group demonstrated, all that’s left is plenty of bracing, thoughtful music, no matter what camp it’s in.

Bruce Hodges

American Modern Ensemble Website

An interview with AME founder and conductor Robert Paterson on Composition Today


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