Cagey, brilliant composer-critic Virgil Thomson commented, “Criticism joins the history of its art only when it joins battle, for or against, with the music of its time.” Well, opportunities galore for battling with music of our time popped up in recent programs at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. In the last week or so, audiences could hear brand-new or very recent pieces by six composers, most of them festival co-commissions.
Aug. 6 presented a trifecta: works by Paul Lansky, known for electronic and computer-generated music; Cynthia Lee Wong, a young contender based in Manhattan; and Chinary Ung, the Cambodian-American composer who mingles Asian and Western elements.
Lansky’s “Horizons” opened the program in a world-premiere performance by Real Quiet (Felix Fan, cello; Stephen Gosling, piano; David Cossin, percussion). The first of three brief movements, “Up Close,” combined languid lyricism for cello with jazzy riffs for vibraphone. “Rough Edged,” again with the cello prominent, was less tonal, more vigorously complex. The last section, “Vanishing,” became delicately colored sarabande, filled with odd, pleasing tonalities.
Wong’s Piano Quartet, a festival co-commission, followed. After a dark opening—
comes to mind—the work moved to a busy climax before fading into a harmonic-filled coda. It’s a thoughtful piece, but predictable and loosely constructed. Fan and Gosling joined Jennifer Gilbert, violin, and Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, in a careful performance.
Concluding the concert with another co-commission, Real Quiet plus Susan Ung, viola, and Wu Man, pipa, offered Chinary Ung’s “AKASA: ‘Formless Spiral,’” a cacophonous work that attempts, again, cross-cultural fusion. To paraphrase, he has said that if the Asian aesthetic is yellow and Western aesthetic is blue, then his aesthetic is green.
If green means fecund and earth-friendly, Ung’s new piece misses by a mile. It sounded deliberately inchoate, with five performers working hard at not finding a focus. It’s a quintet of isolated instrumental voices, occasionally chanting or whistling or singing, seemingly at random. The chaos almost coalesces, then collapses into silence.
I had to miss Anne-Marie McDermott’s performance of Charles Wuorinen’s 2007 Fourth Piano Sonata, but the SFCMF’s fifth new music event arrived Aug. 11: Steven Stucky’s Piano Quintet, an agreeable single-movement work. After the boisterous opening, passages of intense, tremulous lyricism moved toward a sharply syncopated climax. Dynamic, slashing elements conveyed drama and momentum. A brief muted passage followed, leading to the finale, a busy semi-scherzo filled with cheerful wit. The piano quartet, OPUS ONE, joined by violinist Ani Kavafian, made a vigorous impression.
The last of the new works appeared Aug. 15: Australian composer Brett Dean’s “Epitaphs,” another festival co-commission in its North American premiere. Continuing the long tradition of musical portraiture (think Schumann’s “Carnaval,” and the 150-plus piano pictures of acquaintances by the afore-mentioned Virgil Thomson), Dean commemorates the recent deaths of five friends and colleagues.
It’s a powerful, deeply personal composition as performed by the Orion String Quartet with Dean taking the additional viola part. Each of the five movements offers a vivid delineation of its persona, ranging from the “gently flowing” (Dean’s marking) cello of the first portrait, played against a background of delicate string susurrations, to the dense lyricism of the second picture. The third, marked “misterioso,” again features the cello in extended, painful lamentation. The fourth, vigorous and busy, is a study in quick motion.
Marked “hushed and fragile,” the last picture—a slow-motion epitaph for the conductor Richard Hickox—conveys through evanescent, shifting sonorities a grief that lies too deep for words. It’s Dean’s emotion-laden conclusion to an original, remarkable new work.