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Look and Listen Festival (Concerts I and II): JACK Quartet, eighth blackbird, Jade Simmons (piano), So Percussion, Phyllis Chen (toy piano), Meridionalis, Sebastian Zubieta (conductor). Chelsea Art Museum and Gary Snyder/Project Space, New York City, 7.5.2010 and 8.5.2010 (BH)

Friday, 7 May

JACK Quartet

eighth blackbird

Jade Simmons, piano


Hanna Lash: Frayed (2009, world premiere)

Caleb Burhans: Contritus (2009, NY premiere)

Missy Mazzoli: Still Life with Avalanche (2008)

John Corigliano: Etude Fantasy (1976)

Carlos Sanchez-Gutiérrez: Five Memos (2010, world premiere)

Saturday, 8 May
So Percussion

Phyllis Chen, toy piano



John Cage: but what about the sound of crumpling paper (1986)

Fabian Svennsson: Toy Toccata (2009)

Andrián Pertout: Pi (Obstruction) (2008, New York premiere)

Karlheinz Essl: Whatever Shall Be (2010, New York premiere)

Gutierre Fernandez Hidalgo: Salve Regina

Morton Feldman: King of Denmark (1964)

Gutierre Fernandez Hidalgo: Laudate Pueri

Gutierre Fernandez Hidalgo: Magnificat

Jason Treuting: an imaginary city (2008)

A choice 20th-century chestnut made an astute 50-yard line in the opening night of Look & Listen, with listeners packed into the Chelsea Art Museum surrounded by the enormous gestural paintings of Jean Miotte. Written for pianist James Tocco, John Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy combines five studies in its freewheeling form, and makes demonic demands on the performer, starting with a section for the left hand alone. Often hammering out chords in the lowest registers, the pianist later adds the right hand when Corigliano explores the extreme upper end of the instrument. Pianist Jade Simmons, with impressive focus, often dropped her fingers like depth charges onto the keyboard, producing predictably explosive results, before the piece ends in dreamlike tranquility.

The JACK Quartet opened the evening with the world premiere of Frayed, by Hannah Lash, which begins with a deceptively quiet chorale-like motif (sometimes competing with the faint sounds of highway traffic outside). Lash describes the piece as about “tension and release,” but at least in the hands of the superb JACK players, “tension” got the lion’s share of the mood. The quartet followed with Caleb Burhans’s Contritus, representing three prayers of contrition, which could have been penned by a disciple of Arvo Pärt. If one couldn’t blame some listeners from being lulled into torpor, many others would find this trance-inducing. A delicate, fragile mood gradually fades away in a peaceful ending.

By now listeners know what to expect from the renowned sextet eighth blackbird, for which Missy Mazzoli wrote Still Life with Avalanche (which gets my vote for the festival’s best title, aside from the virtues of the music itself). Written following an unexpected death in the composer’s family, the music has a static, pensive quality, spiked by the drone of harmonicas, interrupted again and again by little flourishes—enigmatic bursts—of material. I heard it as a virtuosic exploration of grief—and perhaps the paralysis it can cause—and made an ideal showcase for the six musicians. The evening ended with this peerless sextet in the world premiere of Carlos Sanchez-Gutiérrez’s Five Memos, based on the work of Italo Calvino. According to the composer’s biography, he likes “machines with hiccups and spiders with missing legs”—two images that are rather apt in describing his fierce style, combining rapid gestures, shrieking timbres and an acute sense of color.

John Schaefer, the popular radio announcer, spoke with the five composers during the evening, and also with Mr. Miotte, the artist whose enormous paintings surrounded the room. Miotte specializes in larger-than-life gestures, seemingly captured at the moment of their creation—not a bad analogy for the festival as a whole.

On the second night, held at Gary Snyder/Project Space, So Percussion surprised most in the room by presenting works at the quieter end of the dial, starting with John Cage’s but what about the sound of crumpling paper. Scored for 3 to 10 players, each chooses a selection of “slightly resonant instruments of different materials.” Among the choices I could see here: a paperback book used both for its thud and for the sound of turning pages, masking tape being gently torn, keys jostling, magazine pages flipping, water dripping, and the light scrape of a pencil on paper. Later So’s Jason Treuting offered one of Morton Feldman’s quietest pieces, The King of Denmark (and at about six minutes, one of his shortest). Here sticks and mallets are a no-no; the performer can only use fingers, hands and arms, and it was a pleasure watching Treuting flick small metal bowls, blocks and a cymbal to create a murmuring, not far from complete silence.

“New” can also refer to “old music that is new to contemporary audiences”—in this case, works by Gutierre Fernandez Hidalgo (c. 1556-1620), who arrived in South America around 1584 and wrote in a masterful polyphonic idiom for voices. Three of his works—Salve Regina, Magnificat, and Laudate pueri Dominum—were impressively done by a new vocal group called Meridionalis, in its debut conducted by Sebastian Zubieta. In the economical style of the Hilliard Ensemble, the group’s eight members (including Mr. Zubieta) offered pristine, well-blended vocals, ringing cleanly in the gallery’s acoustic.

In marked contrast to the evening’s overall serenity, Phyllis Chen’s toy piano set offered controlled virtuosity, like a small thunderstorm unable to be held back. Fabian Svennsson’s Toy Toccata has the right hand on the white keys, left hand on the black. It begins with a single note pulse, which soon turns into a dizzying, Ligeti-esque blur. Andrián Pertout’s Pi (Obstruction) uses toy piano and tape to create a complex, microtonal landscape. And as an exuberant finale, Chen gave the New York premiere of Karlheinz Essl’s Whatever Shall Be, which adds electronics and a music box to expand the toy piano’s appealingly constricted range. Near the end, the music box is lowered inside, onto the sounding board, where the oddly distorted strains of “Que Sera, Sera…” seemed like the epitome of an aural experiment gone right.

Host Lara Pellegrinelli offered disarming questions to the composers and to Gary Snyder, the venue’s owner, who briefly discussed the current show of paintings by Taos-based artist Beatrice Mandelman (1912-1998). The So quartet returned to end the evening with Treuting’s an imaginary city, originally designed for the train stations of two Vermont towns. With the drone of a child’s organ as the spine, other sounds gradually enter—rustling paper and bubble wrap, the faint ding of a hotel desk bell—in a piece that exudes gentle melancholy.

Bruce Hodges

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