John Adams at Pitt's Music on the Edge

Written by Andrew Druckenbrod on .

A few thoughts on the Music on the Edge concert last night at Bellefield Hall in Oakland:

John AdamsPitt's Music on the Edge series is everything a collegiate new music series should be -- both a venue for local composers and a window to the world outside world. Since I have been critic at the Post-Gazette, it has brought some amazing local music to the fore and many luminaries to Pittsburgh. If this sounds like an ad it isn't, but full disclosure, I do now teach a class there. But I'd say it anyway, backing it up with evidence from a concert last night.

On the one hand you had an appearance by John Adams, America's most well-known composer. He talked on stage before the Music on the Edge orchestra performed his seminal "Shaker Loops." On the other hand you had a captivating new work by Pitt composer Roger Zahab (who conducted the entire evening) and a challenging work by his colleague Amy Williams.

The concert opened with Zahab's "Vibrant Life," written in memory of a pianist and teacher in Ohio named Margaret Baxstresser. The piece was for strings and piano, but the piano is almost never heard. "It is to mark her absence," Zahab told me after the concert, and now it makes total sense. The pianist (Amy Williams) enters in a few emotional outbursts and then ends the work in the most fascinating, almost resigned way. But the rest of the piece is filled with lush and creative string writing, at first tinged with glissandos, moving to a straight tone development-like section, then to a fugatto and finishing with truly celebratory final strains.

How does one explain why they like a work? I am still struggling with this. It's hard enough to describe music. But I enjoyed the, well, vibrancy of the string writing that was made rich by some divisi and octave doubling, and now that I know it, the conception of the piece, too.  

In addition to being a fantastic pianist, Williams is a composer at Pitt, but her complex piece, "Cineshape 2" for string quartet and piano just didn't do it for me. Clearly, it would take several listenings to judge it, but it struck me as sounding better than it sounds -- meaning, its description read great, but it wasn't realized in the music. Her concept was to write a piece that operates similarly to "Time Code" -- that film that had four mini screens going at the same time. I thought the film worked, but that's because you can physically partition off each screen. With sound, everything gets mixed together. Williams wrote in her notes that the piano "mimics the actual grid of the film" but it just didn't do that. The actual music that the individual performers of the quartet played was often spiky and erratic, too, making the simultaneity hard to handle.  

I am all for music that forces the listener to approach it, but this was like trying to do Sudoku when someone is talking to you. Williams crafted the material impressively, melding the music together as the piece progresses, and I liked the texture. But the work did not open up to me. I would have to hear it a few more times to really tell if "Cineshape 2"  was indeed too cerebral and ambitious or if she does capture the radical film-making process.

Jonny Greenwood

I thought it a great idea for Music on the Edge to program Jonny Greenwood's string orchestra work, "Popcorn Superhet Receiver." It's great to let us hear the Radiohead lead guitarist's first plunge into classical music, if nothing else to let the composing students know they can best him.

But I have to say in all seriousness I feel bad for Greenwood because his foray into orchestral music has been so scrutinized he has not had the chance to grow and develop his own language (or even to make mistakes). "Popcorn" is basically a derivative work with Penderecki as the point of origin for a continuous wave of inflected string passagework. However, there was one passage, in "Part 2b" I think, that was striking and a sign that Greenwood does have something original to offer. Jonny GreenwoodHe asked about half the players to strum their instruments like a guitar and the rest to pluck a melody. Bound with an infectious rhythm, this was the best part of the work. As this photo shows, Greenwood has been thinking in orchestral terms for some time: 

Of all things, Adams' "Shaker Loops" got the least satisfying performance by the assembled musicians. There were some intonation and ensemble problems, under Zahab, but the biggest problem was a lack of energy. I have been listening to the performance on the "Earbox" retrospective (but I don't know the group) and there was simply more propulsive force and vigor to that than I heard last night. But the piece is great, and I love the point in the third movement when the entire ensemble starts pulsing together. Onto "Slonimsky's Earbox" this weekend at Heinz Hall.



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