Atlanta Chamber Players perform the world premiere of "CROW" by David Kirkland Garner. (source: video frame capture)

Review: A night of multiple “firsts” for Atlanta Chamber Players

Mark Gresham | 27 OCT 2020

This past Friday evening the Atlanta Chamber Players performed a concert of music by Ludwig van Beethoven and David Kirkland Garner to a limited in-person audience at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. The concert was simultaneously live-streamed to a broader online audience. There was no intermission.

It was an evening of firsts: It was the 2020/21 season-opening concert for Atlanta Chamber Players, the first concert with an in-person public audience at First Presbyterian since the pandemic shutdown in March, and the performances of two works by Garner were world premieres.

Atlanta Chamber Players have a flexible roster which depends upon the needs of a program’s repertoire. In this instance, the musicians were violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, cellist Brad Ritchie, clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez, hornist Susan Welty, bassoonist Andrew Brady and pianist Julie Coucheron. All six together performed the opening work, Garner’s CROW.

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A native of Atlanta, Garner is currently an assistant professor of composition and theory at the University of South Carolina.

In his program notes the composer describes CROW as a “13-minute dance that leans forward and grooves. It accumulates and transforms. New ideas emerge organically through repetition then transform again. But also sometimes the dance doubles back on old ideas. Eventually time is compressed and, just before the end, the listener finds themselves back home again.”

What we fundamentally hear is a stream of shifting textures that have a pulse-grounded undercurrent, although the pulse itself may shift from time to time, and with punctuated structural points occasionally — not uncommon for music of the last 30 years that goes down that stylistic alley.

It’s that undercurrent of pulse that is most prominent and makes the piece hold together and retain its momentum. With that as the foundation, it’s the shifting colors and textures that hold our interest over the course of the work, not so much any of the motivic elements from which these are built. Nor the harmonic language which moves the work forward, but instead audibly contributes more to color, analogous to a kind of shift in light in the visual realm.

That said, CROW was an attractive enough listening experience, like a trip down a river with interesting and somewhat varied scenery but without encountering any particularly challenging rapids.

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Kim, Ritchie and Coucheron remained on stage for Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 3,in C minor (Op. 1 No. 3). Rodriguez and Brady swapped places with them to perform another, even earlier work by Beethoven, Duo No. 1 in C major (WoO27) for clarinet and bassoon, a piece which appears to be from when the composer was still living in Bonn, Germany. These were the tasty contrasting middle morsels of the evening’s musical sandwich, with Garner’s music as the bread.

David Kirkland Garner.

David Kirkland Garner.

All six musicians reassembled to close the concert with a second world-premiere by Garner, MELT. Much of what has been said about CROW in terms of general elements of style, but it was different in character. The opening and closing moments (as the composer noted himself) offers a bit of a nod to the opening of Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its open harmonic texture (or anything that evokes that kind of open, airy atmosphere) with somewhat of a looping factor added.

Otherwise, if you didn’t already know, it would be a fairly easy guess that CROW and MELT were written by the same person, though much less easy to identify any specific composer by name based on style. MELT is the longer of the two by some four minutes, and invokes more of a feeling of spinning wheels without going anywhere – one way in which it differs from the feelings that CROW invokes. That they were written simultaneously on commission for Atlanta Chamber Players is another factor that links the two pieces together, not as identical twins but perhaps as fraternal ones.

The next concert by Atlanta Chamber Players will likewise be important in terms of debuting new contemporary music: in January at the Walter Hill Auditorium they will host this season’s Rapido! Composition Contest finals. For more information visit   ■