SFNM and SFO give us two shows in which we trust.
Two compelling concerts in eight short days—take note of this really, really big finale to Santa Fe New Music’s 2009- 2010 season that’s winding up this week. Numero uno: a 4 pm program on June 19 at the New Mexico History Museum’s intimate auditorium featuring the music, world premiere included, of Missy Mazzoli. The second: a concert at the Santa Fe Opera’s Stieren Orchestra Hall, 6 pm on June 26, of recent work by Lewis Spratlan, whose Life is a Dream premieres at the SFO.
I asked John Kennedy, SFNM’s founding artistic director, to characterize Mazzoli, a major addition to the burgeoning group of younger New York-based composers.
"You hear a distinctive voice with powerful melodic strength. Missy combines lyricism with driving rhythmic energy. And she's not afraid to use a tonal vocabulary," he says.
SFNM's June 19 concert features four of her works including that premiere, "Death Valley Junction" for string quartet. Commissioned by the SFNM CoMission Club, the piece takes its name and inspiration from a desolate ghost town Mazzoli encountered during a Western road trip.
"I've always been attracted to extremes of setting, of tone, of personality. 'Death Valley Junction' qualifies. Oddly, the town has a tiny opera house where dancer and actress Marta Becket has done onewoman shows since 1967. That's another attraction: those heroic loner women who've headed off for empty places. I'm writing an opera, due in 2012, based on the notebooks of Isabelle Eberhardt," Mazzoli says.
"Rhythmic devices also fascinate; I borrow from the gamelan. Five years ago, I took up 'lo-fi' electronics. That's sampling the sounds of everyday objects like power tools and hedge trimmers. Tuning, also. I love the nostalgic sound of tinny pianos and jangling guitars."
Summing up, she comments, "Beethoven came first for me, and he's still there. And all that schlocky, hearton-your-sleeve stuff appeals. I guess I'm trying to combine familiar sounds with the super-unexpected. Major triads don't scare me."
Back to Kennedy on Spratlan: "Richly layered music from a composer with a dense idiom. We're programming recent works, quite distant from his 1978 opera's atonality. He likes color and abrupt mood shifts. The music is melodramatic, episodic. If I had to find a single word, it might be 'perceivable.'" There'll be three pieces on the Stieren Hall program: "Streaming" for piano quartet; a piano work, "Wonderer"; and "Of Time and the Seasons," a song cycle for soprano and string quartet.
Spratlan comments on his musical manner, "I like my work to be challenging and welcoming at the same time. Music should entertain even when it's rigorous.
"Primarily, I'm a melodist working with a pan-tonal vocabulary that keeps making referential shifts. There's a richness that I can enhance with contrapuntal play—musical lines working independently of each other. And I value humor. So much new music is too long in the face."
Getting down to specifics: "'Streaming' is a sort of anti-pun. Don't think internet. Think about that Joycean halfway world where the buzz of consciousness gets bumped around by kaleidoscopic dream images. At the end, there's a musical yawn. And then you wake up."
Spratlan's "Wonderer," despite its title, is not especially Schubertian (although you'll hear a quote from the B-flat piano sonata). It's a one-movement, fourpart fantasy filled with interruptions. A country-Western waltz shows up, there's some jazzy stride piano, a little salsa, and then the last piece of Spratlan's compositional jigsaw puzzle falls into place.
Finally, "Of Time and the Seasons": austerity and Northern coolness mark its setting of seven Finnish poems, climaxing in the sixth, "The Muster," a mother's bitter lament for her soldier-son's departure.
It's a severe work, but one Kennedy calls "spare and very lovely."
And then Spratlan comments, apropos of music organizations' programming timidity, that they "should put more trust in audiences." Santa Fe, be happy with SFNM's forward-looking programming. This outfit trusts us.