MARK GRESHAM | 05 APR 2021
When it comes to championing the more avant-garde aspects of contemporary classical music, Atlanta-based Bent Frequency appears to be the last ensemble standing in the midst of the continuing pandemic. When Bent Frequency was established in 2003, it filled a gap in the presentation of the avant-garde that was being left by the slow decline of the esteemed Pierrot-configured ensemble Thamyris, which carried the torch high in the last two decades of the 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st.
Since its beginnings, Bent Frequency has embraced the notions of adventurous programming, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and community engagement, but in more recent years, co-artistic directors Jan Berry Baker and Stuart Gerber, has honed in more on a commitment to inclusiveness, exploring and programming music by more socially marginalized identity groups and championing the work of their historically underrepresented composers.
Thursday’s live-streamed program from The Breman Museum in Atlanta, Mirrors, the second program of Bent Frequency’s 2020-2021 SUSTAIN series, featured music by six women composers of Jewish Heritage, followed by conversations with four of the composers via Zoom meeting about their process and their art. The focus of this review is the streamed concert itself.
The program opened with Table Talk (2016) by Alyssa Weinberg, performed by percussionists Stuart Gerber and Victor Pons. It’s written for percussion duo in the way that a work for piano four hands is for two pianists where there is a shared instrument: the two percussionists share the same setup, centered around a single vibraphone, with each player on opposite sides of the instrument facing each other, rather than on the same side splitting the keyboard. In addition, the vibraphone is largely “Prepared” – think of John Cage’s “prepared piano” with all sorts of objects inserted on and between in then piano’s strings to wildly alter the sounds the piano can produce.
In the case of Table Talk, objects, such as other percussion instruments, are place on specific keys of the vibraphone to alter their sound, as well as for the objects themselves to be played upon. In addition to that, extended techniques such as bowing or dampening the vibraphone’s keys in multiple ways is a part of this expansion of the instrument’s available palette of sonic colors, and the music’s rich interplay between them over a rapid telegraph-like undercurrent of rhythm that was primarily at the forefront, though sometimes only implied.
This piece was, for me, then most interesting work on the program. Unfortunately, technical problems with the stream’s audio riddled this opening performance, and Gerber and Pons decided to repeat their performance at the end of the concert, in which the audio was satisfactory. The problems did not reappear in the other parts of the program.
Performed on unaccompanied alto saxophone by Jan Berry Baker, Prayer (T’filah) (1996/2009) by Lera Auerbach opens with a cantorial-sounding melody (as one might expect from the title) that evolves organically from just a few notes, allowing plenty of breathing room in between the developing phrases, with occasional octave displacements that come across like an inner dialog within the singular voice. The piece then begins to pick up rhythms implying dance, but refrains from breaking out into it, then ends in a return to a more contemplative mood. The piece was originally written for solo violin — specifically for violinist Vadim Gluzman — as a response to the tragedy of the Holocaust.
Like Table Talk, Nomi Epstein’s Violin and Piano is a study in color, but using a restricted palette rather than and expansive one, concentrating only on a small number of colors produced on the violin through various techniques, how evolve and interact over time. Performed by violinist Helen Hwaya Kim and pianist Erika Tazawa, its spare pointillism recalls the several post-WWII decades which were heyday of that particular kind of avant-gardism.
With Grito del Corazón (2001) by Judith Shatin, the viewer was presented a film by video artist Kathy Aoki, who collaborated with Shatin on the original project for Ensemble Barcelona Nuova’s “Painting Music” program at the VIII Festival de Cinema Independent de Alternativa 2001. Shatin was inspired by the haunting, stark quality of the “Black Paintings” of Spanish romantic artist Francisco Goya. Shatin met Aoki at the MacDowell Artist Colony, which led to their collaborate.
The instrumentation for Grito del Corazón is flexible: live musicians involved can be solo or chamber ensemble of about a dozen players, all amplified, plus playback of an electronic track. Aoki’s video is optional. For this performance, co-artistic directors Baker and Gerber (who also tour together as the Bent Frequency Duo) provided the live alto sax and percussion element. As mentioned before, stream viewers were shown the Aoki video, which I didn’t find all that interesting on the small screen, but would likely have found much more effective projected as a huge backdrop behind performers in a live in-person concert. We will await that day. The piece felt typical of the genre and a bit dated, with the rumbly electronic fixed media element dominating. As with the video, I wager it would come across much more engaging in a recital hall in context of a live, in-person concert.
The concert’s titular piece, Mare’ot (Mirrors), composed in 1994 by Betty Olivero is a flurry of flute and violin intertwined, played by Sarah Ambrose on multiple flutes and violinist Helen Kim. The instruments play shadowy reflections of each other’s frenetic parts – offering at the beginning a most curious initial impression of what “Flight of the Bumblebee” might have sounded like if written by a late 20th-century avant-gardist. Fortunately that impression is fleeting, and disappears as the piece develops and phrases begin to break up and allow for some space in between while keeping the same momentum, until finally the piece winds down to less hectic rhythm but no less intensity as it comes to its end.
To conclude the program, married (to each other) piano duo Eric Jenkins and Erika Tazawa performed a work for piano four hands, Sonata Serrana No. 1 by Gabriela Lena Frank, Although written in written in 2012, the four movements of this Sonata unabashedly recall modernisms of post-WWI 20th century. You can hear non-so-distant echoes of Stravinsky, Bartok, and any number of composers who gathered in Paris.
Influences abound. Frank says herself, in her notes. that “Sonata Serrana No. 1 is inspired by the distinctly Andean concept of mestizaje as championed by Peruvian folklorist José Maria Arguedas (1911-1969) whereby cultures can co-exist without one subjugating another” and that “[a]llusions to the rhythms and harmonies of the mountain music of my mother’s homeland of Perú abound in each of this work’s four movements, with an additional nod to the colorful style of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.” And yet, Frank still seems to retain her own voice in the midst of all that.
Enjoyably performed here, Sonata Serrana No. 1 is a solid composition that can easily find a larger place in the repertoire for piano four hands, as easily presentable by groups that program a mix of contemporary and traditional core classical repertoire as it is in a program of contemporary music alone.
As previously mentioned, after a short break to reset the stage, Gerber and Pons performed once again Weinberg’s Table Talk for the viewers and especially the video recording, which will surely be edited in, in place of the first attempt, for the rebroadcast of the program on May 13 by the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience at UCLA.
Following that came the promised Zoom round table with composers Judith Shatin, Nomi Epstein and Gabriela Lena Frank. ■