Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Present Music Ensemble Tackles Pieces From the Day-Before-Yesterday

There was the beer that made Milwaukee famous and now there's the chamber ensemble that... well, no, it probably wont make Milwaukee famous. But it will put Milwaukee on the map for lively, edge-of-tomorrow concert classical music. I refer to Present Day, ably led by conductor and artistic director Kevin Stalheim. Look to their new release Graffiti (Innova) for why that is so.

The ensemble performs three compositions of this past decade. All three are by somewhat lesser-known composers but are in no way lesser in terms of impact. First up is Elena Kats-Chernin's "Village Idiot," a composition squarely situated within the minimalist camp. What's interesting though is Elena's melodic inventiveness. Themes arise out of previous ones in ways that get and maintain listener interest. Each kernal of melodic material is well considered, well voiced, and distinctive to the ear. There are both moments of rhythmic drive and more largo-esque passages to break up the blocks of sound. I might venture to say that Kats-Chernin goes about solving the problem of the pianissimo, slower section bugaboo that minimalist compositions either ignore or do not always successfully address. "Village Idiot" integrates the loud and the soft, the slow and the fast so that one does not get the feeling of let-down one sometimes encounters when the intensely motoring sections segue to those that are less so. The thematic material develops linearly with sufficient complexity and musical merit to stimulate the ear. There is repetition, of course, but on a number of levels: 1.) as short-cell motivic activity, and 2.) as wider arches, paragraphs and chapters if you will, of thematic material. It's an intriguing piece and the performance is superb.

Randall Woolf's "Motor City Requiem" begins with a sample of a Motown vocal juxtaposed with piano and strings, then goes on to present music that seems to look back with a kind of nostalgic regret on past glories of the Detroit musical scene and, by extension, the heyday of the city. If this composition does not quite have the sheer dynamism and excitement of "Village Idiot," it does provide an interesting interlude between the more substantial first and last works.

This brings us to Armando Luna's "Graffiti." Luna breaks the piece into 13 short, interconnected movements named for (and inspired by) a vast diversity of musical stalwarts. There's Haydn and Bach, and Bartok, Honegger and Schnittke, for example, but there's also Chic Corea, Dave Brubeck and Benny Goodman.

"Graffiti" exemplifies a current trend: a new kind of organicism that goes beyond eclectic "this and that" sorts of juxtipositions and instead speaks eloquently with a musical language that takes from classical traditions, modern traditions, minimal cyclicism and jazz vitalism, as well as vernacular music of all kinds. It makes all into one. And of course it's not just that Amrmando Luna does it. He does it with a grandly gestural sweep of real encompassment and ingenious musical bricolage. The best of the joiners give the finished result the appearance of a patina of longstanding wholeness, even though the putting-together has just occurred. "Graffiti" has that naturalness, that feeling of inevitableness. This music is not a Frankenstein's monster of stitching and patching. It is a complete music being, to stretch the metaphor a bit.

One should definitely give "Graffiti" a close listen. It gives a vivid picture of part of what's "new" in new music. And it does it with performances that are very close to breathtaking.

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