New Music Norfolk: Phases
It’s a delightful time to be a concertgoer in Hampton Roads! The area is experiencing a surge of interest in new music and an influx of new talent. New Music Norfolk looks to be one of the most promising groups dedicated to new music, presenting quality performances by local and regional artists. Founded by Rebecca Sinclair Kim and Paul Kim just two years ago, New Music Norfolk has set itself up to become a champion for new music in the Hampton Roads community—with an emphasis on community.
Their concerts include commentary from the composers and performers to “set the stage” for each piece. This contextualization strategy proves effective at breaking down some of the barriers ubiquitous with new music, which can often test a listener’s ears, brain, stomach, patience, philosophy, and more. As a composer, it warmed my heart to see this concert well-attended, with not just one but three of the five composers on the program in attendance (Adolphus Hailstork, Paul Kim, and Anne Neikirk) and an inquisitive audience ready to explore new sounds.
The theme of the fall concert was “Phases,” a ruminative word with myriad meanings. Throughout the concert, the idea of “phases” was explored as a concept, a thematic and structural motif, or as a mirror to personal experience.
The first piece was Cadenze (1965), a short competition piece written for violin by Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935). Violinist Jon Spence told us that Sallinen utilized counterintuitive markings in the score, to force the performer to make difficult decisions in interpretation and, in doing so, reveal his or her true musical style. Spence brought this motivic work to life with exuberance, presenting dramatic contrasts of styles and techniques: exaggerated glissandi, forceful double stops, simultaneous bowing and left hand pizzicato, juxtapositions of register and texture, and meticulous color changes when bowing on different areas of the strings. Sallinen’s harmonies reminded me of music by Swedish composer Erland von Koch, and, of course, Jean Sibelius.
Next on the program were two movements from Adolphus Hailstork’s unfinished Fantasy, Elegy (1980), and Caprice (2016). Hailstork explained the 36-year gap between the two movements: Originally for cello, Elegy was written for a memorial service for a dear friend and was premiered by Jim Herbison (1947-2008), long-time local cellist and conductor. Recently, cellist Tim Holly approached Hailstork to write the rest of the work. Ms. Kim and Susan Ha performed an arrangement for viola and piano. Though written decades apart, Elegy and Caprice share the same tonal world—an interesting undertaking by a composer who has traversed many phases of life and music since then. To me, the parallel chords in the Elegy sounded like a forlorn choir gently turning pages in a book of psalms, while the lightheartedness of the Caprice had me imagine a rambling old miner spinning an implausible yarn. Kim and Ha demonstrated excellent communication throughout the piece.
The third piece was a wind duet by composer Josh Harris (b. 1977), performed by Wayla Chambo on alto flute and Anne Epperly on piccolo. Harris is currently assistant professor of music at Sweet Briar College in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The title Broken Circles (2013) refers to repeating and evolving patterns of rhythms, dynamics, and motifs—fitting companions to the idea of “phases.” Both performers read from the same music stand, which helped facilitate the many aleatoric (chance) dialogues throughout the piece.
Several audience members, including me, steeled themselves for a barrage of piercing frequencies. To our relief, it was nothing to worry about, thanks to the composer’s enchanting orchestration and the performers’ charming rendition. Both performers demonstrated superb control over their upper registers. The piece unfolded over seven minutes, during which Chambo’s rounded tone and key clicks contrasted seductively with Epperly’s decisive bird song. I imagined feathered sunlight brushing over the very tops of trees, the warm rays wending down to the forest floor to touch a single leaf...and then awakening the birds and faeries with the sunrise. It pleasantly reminded me of Australian composer Paul Stanhope's Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra (2013). Both movements can be found on youtube: Mvt 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xc7GTIOjX48; Mvt 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fxvW9Jod_w. The work is included on a CD for purchase on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/MSO-Live-Polaris-Stanhope-Concerto/dp/B00IJ8PM7Q
The penultimate piece was Paul Kim’s (b. 1979) Summer (2007), performed by the composer on violin with Jon Wudijono on vibraphone, and Madeline Dietrich on double bass. The composer explained that the work can be interpreted many ways: as a phase of the year, as a pivotal phase in Kim’s own compositional development when he wrote four pieces in six weeks in a summer music program, and even as an embodiment of how music, like life, doesn’t always progress linearly. All three performers used string bows for the opening bars—including two for the vibraphone—and then progressed to a chilled-out groove. The work was cheerfully tonal and unabashedly catchy, and I felt a smile steal across my face as the carefree trio jammed together. To me, the piece represented an unhurried appreciation for what’s good in life.
The program ended with excerpts from a song cycle for soprano and string quartet called Years Later (2012), by Anne Neikirk (b. 1983). Neikirk is the new assistant professor of composition and theory at Norfolk State University. Penelope Cray’s (b. 1974) text is an impressionistic narrative of a dead parent observing their still-living child. The movements we heard were I. Field of eyes wide, III. The Unrecovered, VI. Gangrel, and VIII. Pasturage. The work is often sad and introspective as the deceased looks back on life; time and space intermingle, and all thoughts and memories are omnipresent. There are moments of expectation, joy, obsession, and warmth, but any heightened emotion inevitably grows dull and opaque, the isolation of death irrefutable.
Soprano Elizabeth Hogue captured the distance the narrator has from the world of the living, her voice a potent beacon in tumultuous textures and emotions. The quartet, comprised of Paul Kim and Grant Gilman on violin, Rebecca Kim on viola and Mary Ann Hughes on cello, acts as an equal partner to the singer, propelling the phantom visions from scene to scene. The musicality and balance of the whole group was stellar.
This was my second time attending a concert by New Music Norfolk. I was once again impressed by the caliber and enthusiasm of the musicians; and my gratitude goes to Paul and Rebecca Kim for their efforts in promoting music by living composers. The group seems to be perfecting their secret recipe of building connections between listeners, performers, and composers. For more information check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/newmusicnorfolk/ where you will find featured musicians, composers, and upcoming programs listed.