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concert:nova: Making Their Garden Grow

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 8, 2009 - 12:28:18 AM in reviews

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Performing Arvo Pärt's "Fratres" in concert:nova Garden. Video by Charles Woodman (photo by David onthebias.blogspot.com)


A fire hydrant draped in white lights marked the entrance to concert:nova's "Playing with Light" December 7 in the Metaphor Building on Reading Road.

It was just another fanciful touch for concert:nova, which has been dipping into the “fantastic” since its founding in 2007.

Theme of the concert was light, at its scarcest now with the Winter Solstice approaching, making it a fitting tribute to the season of light.

Concert:nova, a dozen musicians from the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestras who take“nova” (new) seriously by injecting new ideas and artistic disciplines into classical music and performing in unconventional venues, explored darkness last year, with a concert in the dark in the black box theater at the Contemporary Arts Center.

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concert:nova Garden, 534 Reading Road, Cincinnati, Ohio (photo by David onthebias.blogspot.com)

Monday evening in “concert:nova Garden,” an un-renovated space on the ground floor of the Metaphor Building, the lights were on -- and in some highly creative ways. The program was exacting and mostly contemporary, including music by George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Andre Jolivet, George Tsontakis and Arvo Pärt.

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Anthony Luensman

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Charles Woodman

Visual artists Anthony Luensman and Charles Woodman created video and lighting effects to complement and enhance the musical experience.

The concert began with Gregorian chant. With blue light playing on the back wall, a choir of 14 led by Ken Lam and Matthew Peattie sang “O Oriens,” an antiphon for December 21 (date of the Winter Solstice) and “Domine Deus virtutem.”

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Projection by Charles Woodman from Monterey Aquarium accompanying Charles Crumb's "Vox Balaenae" (photo by David onthebias.blogspot.com)

A bit of theater followed, with flutist Randolph Bowman, cellist Theodore Nelson and pianist Julie Spangler donning black masks for Crumb’s 1971 “Vox Balaenae (“Voice of the Whale”) for Three Masked Players." Crumb specified masks to try to distance the work from the human realm and amplified instruments to help evoke the undersea world. Videos of sea life by Woodman projected onto a large screen adjacent to the players accompanied the performance.

Crumb was inspired to write“Vox Balaenae” by the singing of the humpback whale. Bowman played the leviathan’s role by playing and singing into his flute (often simultaneously) and by whistling, flutter-tonguing and tapping the keys. This created an uncanny effect , especially in the prologue for whale solo, entitled “Vocalise for the beginning of time.” Bowman, Nelson and Spangler fleshed out the watery soundscape on their instruments and on crotales (small, tuned cymbals).

Structurally, it’s a theme and variations framed by the prologue and a touching epilogue, “Sea Nocturne for the end of time.” The five variations are named for Earth’s geologic eras like “Archeozoic,” “Proterozoic,” etc. It delivered a message. Bowman’s introductory “Vocalise” was interrupted by sharp piano chords followed by ominous plucking by Nelson reminiscent of the opening bars of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” symbolic of man’s intrusion on the marine environment (the screen is dark in the epilogue).

All three players had lots to do: Spangler on “prepared” piano (objects placed in or on the piano to alter the sound) where she moved between the keyboard and the strings, which she strummed for breathtaking, whooshing sounds. Nelson introduced the dream-like theme using fingered harmonics.

There was little chance of the visuals overwhelming the music here. Woodman, professor of fine arts at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, provided gorgeous, sensual images from Monterey Aquarium in California, including oozy white and pink jellyfish and schools of silvery fish against a deep blue background.

Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s 1981 “Rain Tree” for percussion trio was another highlight. Brady Harrison and Jeff Luft on marimbas and crotales and CSO principal timpanist Patrick Schleker on vibraphone and crotales evoked novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s 1980 “Clever Rain Tree” about a tree whose leaves collect water, to be released when it no longer rains. They played in front of a shimmering wall of glass prisms suspended over a black curtain with a video of sunlight on water projecting through them.

Communication among the three players was remarkable as they negotiated the work’s complex rhythms while conveying its sense of a steady, “dripping” pulse.

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Flutist Randolph Bowman performing Andre Jolivet's "Chant de Linos" (photo by David onthebias.blogspot.com)

Bowman starred again after intermission in Jolivet’s 1941“Chant de Linos” for flute, harp and string trio. Extremely difficult – deliberately so, having been commissioned for a flute competition at the Paris Conservatoire – it caused no problems for Bowman. The CSO’s principal flutist is not only a daunting technician, but a master of tone production (no one I know plays the flute more sweetly).

“Chant de Linos” refers to an ancient Greek funeral lament. (Linos ended badly. By various accounts, he was either torn apart by dogs at birth or, having grown up to become a great musician, was killed by his inept student Hercules or the jealous god Apollo.) The work contains dance rhythms in 7/8 time, slow elegiac passages and sharp outcries of grief. Bowman, harpist Gillian Benet Sella, violinist Anna Reider, violist Heidi Yenney and cellist Nelson conveyed its contrasting emotions vividly. Woodman’s accompanying video, of landscapes shot at different angles that gradually came together to form mirror images, was engrossing.

Tsontakis’ octet “Gymnopedies” invites visual imagery by its very titles: “Magical,” “Glistening,” “Cascades” and “Bratty.” Performed by violinist Tatiana Berman, violist Yenney, cellist Nelson, flutist Bowman, clarinetist Ixi Chen, French hornist Matt Annin, harpist Sella, pianist Spangler and percussionist Schleker and led by CSO assistant conductor Lam, the music spoke for itself, with vivid musical imagery for each movement (upward surges in "Glistening," for example). The colored light projected onto the wall – blue for “Cascades,” red for “Bratty” -- was mostly superfluous, though it made a ravishing image reflected on Sella’s golden harp.

Pärt’s “Fratres” was performed by Berman, Reider, Yenney and Nelson in a version for string quartet. Written in Pärt’s ethereal, tintinnabuli style, it comprises a sequence of chords sounded initially by harmonics and repeated in a strictly ordered descent over an open-fifth drone in the second violin and pizzicato punctuation by the cello. The music takes on warmth and vibrato as it descends into mid-range before tapering off at the end. The first violin and viola are directed to re-tune their lowest strings downward, necessitating adjustment of bowing and fingering to match the altered timbre and pitch of the instruments.

The quartet met these not insignificant demands admirably, including Reider on her ten-minute, Zen-like drone. Part’s sense of spiritual passage -- of a unity attained -- was conveyed with skill and refinement.

To close the program, the singers returned for a repeat of “O Oriens” and, in the luminous spirit of the holiday season, Thomas Tallis’ “O Nata Lux” (“Light Born of Light”).

The concert drew a crowd of 200, causing an unexpected delay in the starting hour and standing-room-only for some listeners. There were also occasional (minor) electrical problems.

Nevertheless, you wanted to cheer for the volunteer-driven group, which handled tickets, tech support, logistics and complimentary food and drink (from Via Vite, Coffee Emporium and Madisono's gelato) with energy and good humor.

C:n’s next program will be in February, the exact date to be announced. Dubbed “The Essential Mahler,” the concert will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s birth and will feature chamber ensemble versions of his “Das Lied von der Erde” and Symphony No. 4.