Review: 25th Anniversary National Conference (part 6)

By Walter Saul

October 17-19, 2019
Concert 3: Piano

The Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers National Conference continued at 7:30 pm on Friday, October 18, back in the Joan Pittman Williams Recital Hall at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi. This third concert featured piano music, but also included two works involving electronic music. It still tempts me to talk about “tape,” which I remember physically splicing and taping together in my graduate school days, but I strongly suspect that “tape” is but a memory of composers Ken Davies and John R. Akins as well.

I might as well confess that, once I had completed my third work for my electronic music class in the spring semester of 1980, I was finished with electronic media, and really could not envision much of a future for it. And yet, two composers close to me in age demonstrate pluck and vision in creating the first two works on this program, so this is not just a medium for millennials or younger composers, but for composers of all generations.

The first of these works, Weather Report, by Mississippi’s own Ken Davies (who certainly deserves to be Mississippi’s resident composer) demonstrates his prowess with electronic media and using it for genuinely expressive purposes, an accomplishment worthy of any composer. In south Mississippi, near the Gulf, where he lives, they have weather, including strong memories of Hurricane Katrina and many powerful storms. Davies takes you there right in the middle of the scene with his “five atmospheric vignettes.” [1] “Nimbus Clouds” opens the suite with brooding string sonorities ripped apart by harsh, harpsichord-like riffs fearfully depicting thunder and lightning. “Night Freeze” depicts an ice storm, including the “cracking ice-laden branches” [2] jettisoning their ice onto the icy ground. The stillness is well depicted by open fourths and fifths. “Snow Flurries” (hard to believe in south Mississippi!) features the solo oboe, beautifully played by Richard Kravchak, against tinkly chimes, like snow flakes, coming from all different directions, near and far, thanks to reverb and panning between the speakers. Strands of strings and organ-like sounds complement the oboe in depicting the “Sunshine” of the fourth movement. Emergency beeps and explosions depict the horrific “Windstorms” that literally throttle the dramatic end of this suite.

John R. Akins’ Cymbalindrome II, for “fixed media,” according to the composer [3]. cleverly intertwines musique concrète recordings of Akins’ percussionist son’s cymbals processed with Audacity, a free download recording and sound-processing program that is remarkably full-featured. Barely-recognizable snippets of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in g minor, along with other classical works, are woven into this rich texture, which features a palindrome of the first half of the work in the second half (like Paul Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück and the finale of the String Quartet by Ruth Crawford Seeger), as well as miniature palindromes within the motives of this work.

Andrew Mark Sauerwein’s Pursuit, in a phenomenal performance by pianist Stephen W. Sachs, is literally the pursuit of a distant melody, centered around the note A, by thick chords in the manner of Olivier Messiaen and a speeding toccata that finally “catches,” or is caught by the opening idea.

Ian Evans Guthrie showed off not only his considerable compositional abilities but his prowess as a pianist in his performance of his A Farewell Elegy. Many of us have had “in-between” years or some stretch of time that is transitional from one chapter of our lives to the next chapter. One cannot call these times sabbaticals because they are filled with stress and anxiety about the future. Such a time in Guthrie’s life inspired this elegy, which struggles in a parallel fashion between the very different keys of C and D-flat major, and ventures into bitonal stretches between C and F# as well as C/D-flat, again recalling the music of Messiaen. The opening chorale-like theme unveils the deep spiritual roots of this powerful work, reminiscent of the Lord holding the hand of His dear child through the rough and challenging patches of life.

The Partita Picosa of Josh Rodriguez, much like the Choros works of Heitor Villa-Lobos, combines the raw passion of Latin American popular music with the dance and other instrumental forms of the Baroque. Rodriguez’ wife, Mary Vanhoozer, brought this incredibly difficult and challenging score to life in a commanding and powerful performance which truly was a grand finale to this program. The opening “Toccata con salsa” hints at chorales evoking the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther and, musically, J. S. Bach in its whirling dervish of fury and energy. “Ballerina in a Box (Minuet)” elegantly weaves hemiolas into harmonies that recall the music of Alexander Scriabin. The third movement, “La Fuga del Paralítico,” assumes the structure of a fugue even as it hearkens back to the Renaissance through its Lydian modality. Huge spaces of sound and time fill up more and more with the bustling energy of triplets and aggressive repeated eighth notes, and ending with the inversion of the subject. I cannot help but think of the paralytics that Jesus and His apostles healed, transforming them from inert and trapped persons into dynamic witnesses of His power. The next movement, “Mourning into Dancing (Passacaglia),” similarly invokes Biblical transformational images. Its repeated B’s are reminiscent of the “variation on a note” in the third act, fourth scene, of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. The “EDM Finale” begins with small tone clusters. That leads into a praise chorus evoking Aaron Copland with a beat which then deteriorates into a fast salsa reminiscent of the opening Toccata. The praise chorus theme returns once again just before the whirlwind finish on the C’s that opened the finale and the entire suite. All in all, a dynamic and virtuoso program!

These works can be heard in part or their entirety as follows:

[1] Program notes, Concert 3: Piano, from the CFAMC National Conference 25th Anniversary program booklet, (Clinton, MS: Mississippi College), 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.