Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ars Nova Dallas - Concert Review

"Ars Nova" first appeared c.1320-22 in a treatise on a new 14th century music style denoted by increasingly liberal rhythmic notations that resulted in a new polyphony.  Fast forward to its meaning in 2009 as "Ars Nova Dallas".  "Ars Nova Dallas" aspires to present new music styles since the radical rupture of 1909-13 from Romanticism and Impressionism .  Of the three pivotal works from this musical big bang -Elektra R.Strauss 1909, Pierrot Lunaire A.Schoenberg 1911, Rite of Spring I.Stravinsky 1913 - "Ars Nova Dallas" chose the nine instrument configuration of Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg.
The decision to launch a new music festival with Pierrot Lunaire is daring indeed. The impressive results speak volumes about the musical integrity of its founders, Jordan Smith and Ryan Ross.  In the space of six months they obtained sponsorship, organized The Dallas Festival of Modern Music and assembled a collection of highly capable regional musicians  - "Ars Nova Dallas" - to perform an inaugural concert series.   Mr. Smith says his inspiration derived from synergy with the opening of the new AT&T Performing Arts Center and his desire to further expose under represented modern music repertoire.  Included in Mr. Smith's future agenda will be equal proportions of 20th century musical icons alongside living composers who offer immediacy and relevance to the era in which we live.
This performance trend is not a Dallas phenomenon but rather indicative of a broader development of western cultural expression that has come of age.  In significant music centers around this country and countries of western Europe, well trained classical musicians educated in 20th century music are making their voices heard by creating their own, often times non-traditional, venues.   The previously thought difficult and unplayable is no more.  Since 1964, with Terry Riley's In C, another reaction revolted against the established order.  This time, in lieu of the exclusivity of abstract serial methods, composers began experimenting with new space-time tonal perspectives and rhythmic structures.  Music is a language and a new language requires time to absorb into the social fabric.  This passage of time has elapsed and the update is now in progress.

                                       Artistic Director, Ryan Ross
Monday, Nov 9, evening's performance displayed full competence to deliver the rigors of this most varied and strenuous program.  The theme of Pierrot dominated the program.  The first piece introduced the Russian variant of Pierrot as Petrouchka in Petroushskates by Joan Tower (1980).  Written for ice skaters, hence Petroush-skates, this  inventive composition is an original rework of Igor Stravinsky's 3 act ballet Petrouchka.  Ms. Tower followed the 3 act musical form as if she put Stravinsky's score into a grinder and then reassemble selected bits and scraps into her own condensed 12 minute version.  The ensemble was conducted convincingly by Ryan Ross.   Mr. Ross brought to life the carnival spirit of the beginning and ending, set between a brief middle section that alluded to Petrouchka's deep melancholy and disturbed behavior.  Mr.Ross handled these tempi and dynamic contrasts with subtle control.
Next Mr. Ross conducted Barbara White's My Barn Having Burned to the Round, I Can Now See the Moonwritten in 2008.  Ms. White has written many pieces with titles from Haiku and Chinese Proverbs.  "My Barn..." refers to either a Chinese Proverb or  Japanese Haiku.  The meaning refers to sorry and grief: "Loss is guaranteed in life, yet so hard to see the beauty".  Mr. Ross says that the piece is modeled on the sound of the Japanese shakuhashi flute.  There are two sections: an opening section of loud attack and motion followed by several minutes of ever quieting and disperse decay into nothingness.  Mr. Ross's beat was always clear and steady through the empty spaces.  With a small ensemble, economy of gesture is appropriate.  Mr. Ross conveyed an austere and abstract atmosphere.

                                                    Artistic Director, Jordan Smith
The center piece of the evening's program and Festival was Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire Op.21 written in 1912.  Schoenberg expanded late German Romantic Chromaticism into "free tonality" and later into a realm of rigorously structured atonality - 12 Tone Technique.  Schoenberg was also a intensively serious painter who knew and exhibited with Kandinsky in the 1910 "Der Blaue Reiter/ Blue Rider" show.  These were the early years of German Expressionism when artists sought to express life through a subjective distortion of reality for an emotional angst effect.
Pierrot Lunaire indeed does achieve an angst.  During the 21 poem cycle, Pierrot starts on an unstable foot that leads down a path to deranged dissolution.  At the end Pierrot somehow walks away from madness in a fog of resolve about his fate.  To achieve this artistic state of being we heard Jessica Abel  "sprechstimme" the role of Pierrot.  Ms. Able, from the Peabody Conservatory, has been coached by an authority of sprechstimme, Phyllis Bryn-Julson.  After the pitch is sung the voice deviates to speech quality creating an eerie unsettling feeling.  Ms. Abel was perfect throughout her delivery as Pierrot, enhanced by appropriate costume and make-up for this concert version.
Pierrot Lunaire was composed in "free tonality".  It was in 1908 when Schoenberg transitioned away from what he saw as tonal exhaustion of late German Romanticism.  However Schoenberg never abandoned discipline.  Pierrot Lunaire is a masterpiece of compositional technique that employed every known formula in the development of western music but literally inverted them all upside down, inside out and backwards.  Rhythmically, it is all askew imposing a most difficult ensemble challenge.
Jordan Smith pulled together an array of musicians by colleague and Internet networking.  This is a capable ensemble of the highest professional standard.  There are no slackers here.  All are dedicated to solid modern music performance.  In the past there have been too many "new music ensembles" that fake it and do little better than sight read scores.  "Ars Nova Dallas" demonstrated fluency, understanding, dedication, energy and passion for this score.  Mr. Smith is to be commended and recommended for his achievement to organize, learn and conduct this landmark score of 20th century music.  Mr. Smith drove an intensity in the air that this was an important performance even though the audience was few.
Schoenberg's foreword to the score states "The performer's task here is at no time to derive the mood and character of the individual pieces from the meaning of the words, but always solely for the music.  To the extent that the tone-painterly representation ... will be found in the music anyway [not the text]."  And this is exactly what happened.  Mr. Smith conducted the score straightforward, no swinging arms, no jumping up and down, no swaying body to convey a message.  Mr. Smith concentrated on musical execution to maintain necessary strict cohesion.  There was a clean brilliance in instrumental execution from Mr. Smith's tight control throughout the score.  Mr. Smith adhered faithfully to Schoenberg's foreword and thus the sounds of the spirit soared.  All the "Ars Nova Dallas" members played as both soloist multiple times and in tuttis.  All "Ars Nova Dallas" members performed the most gnarly difficult passages exquisitely.  Ms. Abel captured the essence of the mentally unstable Pierrot executing the sprechstimme technique with intimate aplomb.
Nothing is perfect, so it must be said that the small Wynne Chapel within the gracious host's complex, Highland Park Presbyterian Church, is extremely dry and bright.  This is an acoustical problem that caused the most dense passages of the Schoenberg to overwhelm Ms. Abel's voice.  Also in this room the piccolo, which shrieked most accordingly, provokes a slight degree of short aural discomfort.  Mr. Ross and Mr. Smith might like present this show to a larger audience at a higher venue.  There are certainly enough people who would be very interested to hear this rare and important performance.
The Cast of musicians:
Jocelyn Goranson, flute/piccolo
Mary Druhan, clarinet/bass clarinet
Veronica Gan, violin/viola
Craig Leffer, cello
Rueben Allred, piano
Jessica Abel, sprechstimme
Ryan Ross, conductor
Jordan Smith, conductor
For more info: 

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Inaugural Year Comes to a Close

A very nice review from a blogger.
Many thanks to our partners, friends, and colleagues for a wonderful inaugural festival.