July 9, 2017


New Music Norfolk presents First Program
Chandler Hall, July 1, 2016
Review by John Campbell

To create opportunities for younger composers and performers, New Music Norfolk was launched on Friday, July 1, 2016. Following other local independent start-up groups in the last few years for opera and art song, a chamber music group is a welcome development. The idea originated with Dr. Paul Kim, conductor of the Old Dominion University Symphony and his wife, violist Rebecca Sinclair Kim. Drawing on a circle of friends and fellow musicians who volunteered their services, they organized a recital of five works by four composers, all of them younger than 40 years old.

Dr. Susan C. Ha was pianist for the opening piece Moments: 11 Miniatures for Solo Piano by Gonçalo Lourenço (b. 1979, Lisbon Portugal). He and Ms. Ha met at University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. Ms. Ha teaches piano at NSU where she is Coordinator of Piano Studies. She displayed her accomplished pianism in this world premiere performance. The work's conceit was that music can represent the steps in creating a painting: The Idea, A Black Square on a White Background, The Drawing, Presentation, Criticism and Frustration, etc. This eclectic work incorporated sections of spare, reflective single notes, somber 3-note phrases, a busy boogie-woogie, a mad dance, dreamy, impressionistic precise notes and a languorous, sensual miniature. From these elements Lourenço built a work that challenged performer and listener alike. I hope to hear it again soon. It was a lot to take-in in one hearing.

Violist Lisa Sailer is based in Boston and was in Tidewater to perform, with her friend violist Rebecca Sinclair Kim, Yellow for viola duo written by Boston-based composer Martin Kenealy (b. 1987). The violists met while pursuing graduate studies at Boston Conservatory. At the beginning, close harmonies in a dialogue of violas were emotionally satisfying to hear. But later, Ms. Sailer's musical line became strident. The disharmony was disconcerting. Sensitive playing heightened the tension. In the introduction one of the violists talked about the two being in harmony then gradually pulling apart into disharmony. At the end, one viola drops out while the other continues playing, as if calling out to the other.

Composers Chaz Stuart (b. 1989) and Paul Kim (b.1979) met when studying at Shenandoah Conservatory. Next we heard Beyond a Shadow for Piccolo and Piano by Stuart who currently runs the box office for Virginia Symphony. This, and the piece that followed, Twenty-six Muted Colors for String Quartet were written in 2013 when Stuart was at the Peabody Institute. They are very different in mood. Beyond a Shadow could be a soundtrack for a scene in an ancient oriental garden as the day fades toward evening. The piccolo could represent the call of a cricket and the prepared-piano with the dry percussive lower notes could be a plucked lute. This opens into a melodious, sunny sound, then returns to the limited palette of the opening section but accompanied by bird calls.

Twenty-six Muted Colors for String Quartet was Mr. Stuart's musical reaction to the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of young children and their teachers. His musical language was greatly influenced by Anton Webern. In the first movement “Destructive—Violent” he captures danger—tortured high strings punctuated by cello chords like a death knell tolling. Another section is like a child's repetitive game that goes awry. The second movement “Static, almost motionless—Uncomfortable” captures his reaction to viewing children's faces on TV—a long, uncomfortable silence interrupted by whispered string phrases, then an eerie sound, and a modulated cry of pain. In the horrible unison of strings, they try for a tune but finally fall silent in this overlong movement. The third section,“Overwhelming,” was inharmonious from the beginning. Individual lines are fine but assembled they are at odds with each other. The quartet was Grant Gilman (who runs the orchestra program at Norfolk Academy) and Dr. Kim, violins; Ms. Sailer, viola; and the other go-to cellist in Hampton Roads, the amazing Jacob Fowler. The quartet brought this demanding music to life and the audience absorbed it as well as they could. Much like how we in our culture cope with the ongoing, horrendous events caused by deranged people with easy access to firearms.

The final work was the world premiere of a song cycle by Paul Kim (b. 1979), Three Poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Paul told us that since high school he has been enamored of the works of Poe. Here he has emphasized the more romantic and emotional words of Poe. The first, A Dream within a Dream (1849) speaks of despair. Hymn (from “Morella” 1839) is more lyrical, a supplication to heaven and especially Sancta Maria. The final song, To M.L.S. (Mary Louise Shew) (1847) offers a mood of gratitude. Tenor Brian Nedvin sang the tonal setting with the cadence of natural speech and great clarity, backed by the string quartet. Dr. Nedvin has a busy career as a vocalist and heads the O.D.U. opera and musical theater productions. It is a luxury to have a string quartet but I suspect that a piano accompaniment for the voice would also work well.

The concept of a local chamber group producing recently written music played by accomplished performers is excellent, as we heard on this, their premiere concert. New Music Norfolk is seeking new compositions and a widening circle of interested performers and, of course, an audience willing to give new music a focused listen.

New Music Norfolk: Explorations
Chandler Hall at ODU, July 9, 2017
Review by John Campbell

Paul Kim and Rebecca Sinclair Kim offered a polished spoken introduction to the program by regional music professionals playing recent music by several composers in attendance.

The opening Sarabande (2006) by American composer Kenji Bunch (b. 1973) was a modern take on this Baroque dance form. The violinist Christopher Taylor, a willowy, blond young man, deeply concentrated as he spun out music of great emotional expression, both sweet and sad by turn. His violin was sometimes bowed and plucked simultaneously, only to have the sound fade away gently, leaving a satisfying glow. Christopher initially had instruction from Carol Thomas Downing, then played with Bay Youth Orchestra and attended the Governor's School for the Arts. He later worked with Jorge Aguirre of the Hampton Roads Chamber Players. His B.M. Degree is from East Carolina University (ECU) where Ara Gregorian was his mentor.

Pianist Daniel “Trey” Simmons (b. 1991) played his own composition, Crowded Streets, (2017) on piano. It opened with spare, impressionistic music that led the listener into a firmly constructed acoustic space that became busy and saturated as he shared his experience of cities while touring with El-Live to Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Ho Chi Minh City. Trey returned to do graduate work at Norfolk State University in music theory and composition. He founded Black Element Recording Studios in Hampton, working with local and major-label artists as a sometime composer, producer, music director or keyboardist. We found this music both emotionally and intellectually engaging.

The oldest music on the program was by living composer George Crumb (b. 1929) Solo Sonata for Violoncello (1955), played by a third handsome, young performer, Ian Robinson. Crumb's sontata explores the full spectrum of the sound possibilities of the cello. There were bursts of intensity interspersed with soft strumming with both bowed or plucked sections. Ian maintained a relaxed demeanor as his strums invited us into the easy soundspace with pizzicato passages taking us deeper and leaving us with a satisfying experience and a sense of fun.

Violinist Grant Gilman and violist Rebecca Sinclair Kim joined Taylor and Robinson to make up a quartet for Mémoire (2017) by Kelly Hart (b. 1993) who is a second year music theory graduate assistant at ECU. Ms. Hart is a soprano vocalist, piano accompanist and a composer. The committed playing of the ensemble offered music using a palette that reminded me of Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet.

The next composition was Pallid Vestiges, Book I (2014), solo piano pieces written by Chaz Stuart (b. 1989), who hosts WHRO 90.3's weekend morning classical show. The five movements were given their world premiere by pianist Stephen Coxe who played with concentration and power. Mr. Stuart spoke of composing something based on an idea from an old dream, where memory fades into vestiges resurrected here. The first section used single phrases and notes that were pieced together gently and slowly. The second section offered repeated staccato chords—treble first, then bass, then treble. The third was meditative with a focused, catchy phrase with modified repeats and a sweet chord between. The nightmare fourth movement seemed endless. Loud, obstreperous cross-hand playing and brutal low-note chords seemed to express great frustration. A page turn and it was all swept away, only to return, with some listeners hoping it would soon be over. The fifth section offered bell-like tones, tentatively tuneful, though I could not trust that the deep frustration of the previous movement would not return.

Thankfully, the next set by Stephen Coxe as composer was a lovely experience. His three Everwine Songs (2009) were sung by the ever marvelous mezzo-soprano Adriane Kerr with violist Anastasia Migliozzi. The texts by poet Peter Everwine (b. 1930) offer impressions of scenes from nature, somber and sometimes sweet.

The first song, How it Was, captures a poignant moment in time. In It was Autumn, the cacophony of crickets singing is created by the viola. A peaceful acceptance of being alone in Night ended the set. The composer has said that the three poems are inspired by nature and memory. They have a haunting quality and relate to his feeling of being overwhelmed by nature in all its extreme beauty in late summer in Vermont.

The program concluded with music inspired by mountain climbing. We heard movements III and IV from Alaska (2014) by Christopher Palestrant (b. 1969), who teaches composition at Elizabeth City State University. Violinists Johnathan Spence and Grant Gilman joined Ms. Kim, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Coxe. The third movement "Eielson" opened with a cello solo, an incantation to remember one of the best climbs of the composer’s experience. Urgent intensity depicted raindrops. Plucked strings gave us the danger of climbing through loose gravel. The movement flowed into lovely ensemble playing. The fourth movement "Denali opened with a dreamy cold piano solo celebrating the tallest North American mountain. The walking rhythm was happy and energetic at times with a gentle, floating ending.

This very successful second New Music Norfolk program gave us a chance to hear current chamber music well-played by younger professionals. It is a development well worth celebrating.

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