Review: 25th Anniversary National Conference (part 9)

By Walter Saul
October 17-19, 2019

Concert 5: Chamber Music

It should come as no surprise that some of the most striking and beautiful architecture in the southeastern United States of America are houses of worship. In my article about Concert 2: Choir & Organ, I discussed the historic Provine Chapel at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi. The concluding concert of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers National Convention took place on Saturday, October 19, at 4:30 pm in the Concert Hall, Center for the Arts, at Belhaven University. This is an 800-seat hall that acoustically works for the grandest ensembles and also intimate chamber groups. In the same building are ample rehearsal halls, practice rooms, a theater, computer lab and other facilities housing the departments of music and theater. While this facility was opened in 2002, it is the former building of the Riverside Independent Methodist Church. I attempted in vain to find more information about this splendid building with its striking pillars, brick work, and stained glass windows. But for now, I will simply celebrate the new and vibrant life it enjoys on the Belhaven campus.

It is fascinating that this medium-sized university has two excellent facilities to house its Fine Arts program. The Bitsy Irby Visual Arts and Dance Center, where Concert 4 took place earlier on the same day, houses the other two majors. With these superb buildings and nationally-recognized School of the Arts, Belhaven is one of only 36 institutions in the entire nation to carry accreditation in all four areas, and the only institution in the Council of Christian Colleges so accredited.

So it seems fitting that the fifth and final concert of the convention took place in the Concert Hall, formerly Riverside’s sanctuary. Five chamber works, three with multiple movements, comprised the program.

The event opened with a string quartet, White Apples, by Heather Niemi Savage, one of the CFAMC Board members and a highly sought after composer in southwestern Rhode Island. Savage recently won second place in The American Prize for composition, in the pops/light music division for her piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, which can be heard on her website Reading the short poem “White Apples” by Donald Hall, I felt I was compressing and cramming myself into a world of agony and hurt. In 51 words, the poet takes us rapidly through four scenes of grief and sorrow over the death of a father, possibly his own father, with whom he had a stormy relationship. These four scenes form the architecture for Savage’s four-movement work. Unfortunately, only the first two movements were performed quite ably by Zakary Joyner and Katherine Crivello, violins, Cristan Trexler, viola, and Rebekah Miller, cello.

The four movements come straight out of the progression of the poem: “Incognizance,” “Awakening,” “Emergence,” and “Resolve.” One of the aspects I particularly enjoy about this work is Savage’s continuum of tonality which ranges from angry atonal dissonances to hopeful references to C major and D minor among other keys. Savage brings us also frequent and brilliant modulations which undergird so effectively the progression of the poem. To emphasize the atonal extreme of this continuum she emphasizes two pitch-class sets 016 and 012 (e. g.: E, F, B-flat and E-flat, E, F). These are the only two 3-tone sets with no thirds, so no possible tonal references, and they come with the most strident dissonances. Béla Bartók’s music comes to mind, but as Savage roams the continuum, so do the more comforting dissonances of Morton Lauridsen. Of course, the concept of tonal continuum owes much to the post-serialistic music of my mentor George Rochberg. But, more importantly, the continuum is ideal to convey the comforting, yet jarring realities of sleep and sudden awakening. Amazingly, the first two movements stand up well as a satisfying pair, but I longed to continue the struggle through “Emergence” and “Resolve,” where post-tonal musical language resolves into the comforting, yet melancholic D major. I do believe Rochberg, who wrote seven epic string quartets, would have been proud of this.

Jack Ballard’s Chrystalin (Romance for Piano and Violin) is, according to the composer, “a fantasia on a theme from my Romances of Colorado for Chamber Orchestra.” The single-movement work divides into three sections: before, during, and after a high-altitude snowstorm, as the composer describes it. Ballard uses a largely modal harmonic language featuring the Dorian and Lydian modes, which are ideal to depict this remarkable scene. He employs tensions between the Dorian mode in D and the D minor key (B-flat and B-natural) and B-flat Lydian and B-flat major (E-natural and E-flat) which hearken back to music of Benjamin Britten. The wide spacing of harmonic sonorities recalls the open spaces of Aaron Copland. I am particularly struck by how deftly Ballard conveys the frozen stillness and yet the warmth of life hidden in the coldness. The performance by Daniel Jones, violin, and the composer at the piano, was quite powerful and the large former sanctuary and its beautiful acoustics enhanced the impact of this exquisite piece.

For me, it is too easy to caricature William Vollinger, a tough-talking, New Jersey-based composer whose work The Child in the Hole was just awarded the American Prize in Composition (vocal chamber music) first prize, as a creator who will bring smiles and laughter to my heart, even as he uses humor to communicate deep and serious truths. Certainly his witty and humorous take on life in the Garden State for narrator and band, It Takes A Long Time to Grow Up in New Jersey, fits that stereotype, as does his marvelous Humility and Confidence, a “paper” he wrote to exhort and encourage us in CFAMC boldly to compose and create without worrying how good we were or being overly proud of ourselves. These and other works in his catalogue really come to life when he is the narrator/vocal soloist – though his style is definitely not bel canto! But such stereotypes are wonderfully smashed to pieces by How a Place Becomes Holy. Once again, Vollinger is everything: composer, pianist, and vocalist, and his work and performance unleash a poignancy that completely took me by surprise.

The poem is by Yehoshua November, who also goes by Yehoshua, and it comes out of one of his two collections of poetry, G d’s Optimism. The website adds this simple note to describe the poem: “A short poem about an ordinary event.” The “ordinary event” is nothing more or less than repentance, and the poem’s eleven lines describe this actually extraordinary event very compactly, yet expressively with a yearning voice that reminds us of Psalm 51.

All Vollinger needs to do, it seems, is discover the music that’s already there, rather than work so hard to “create” it. And he wisely does so. The yearning for God’s mercy takes on a gentle Romantic texture and an ebb and sway that often remind me of Felix Mendelssohn’s music. No smiles here – until the last three lines, where the man in the poem receives forgiveness and release. Could the “someone” who is seemingly “standing there, holding his briefcase, wearing his coat” (from the opening of the poem) be an image of Jesus Christ, God with us?

The Diamond Piano Trio, consisting of Shellie Brown, violin, Veronica Parrales, cello, and Stephen W. Sachs, piano, presented stunning complete performances of the last two works by Benjamin Williams and John R. Akins. Williams is Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Mississippi College and served CFAMC so well as one of our hosts. Akins retired recently from a 33-year career at Evangel University and has taught at three other institutions.

How appropriate it was for Williams’ Forgive, as… to follow How a Place Becomes Holy. In three movements Williams takes us from the perplexing and difficult beginning to the joyous outcome of reconciliation. His deceptively simple beginning in A major without added sharps and flats leads into an angst-filled cello solo and a burst of speed leading into a full-voiced restatement of the opening, but with moments featuring the melancholy d minor chord, which sets up the elegiac middle movement’s tonic key. Williams smooth modulations and triplet rhythms recall the music of Johannes Brahms. The finale takes on the character of a jig, with bubbly sections all in major keys and recalls the chords of the opening movement to end on a triumphant note. This work was written for the Mockingbird Piano Trio in 2017.

Effective, compact pieces for piano trio are rare, but the Terzina Piano Trio in Menominee, Michigan, commissioned Akins for something “not too lengthy or far out.” What familiar words for a commission! But Akins rose fittingly to the occasion in this ten-minute, three-movement work that reminds me some of the compactness of Serge Prokofieff’s Classical Symphony. Like angels descending from heaven, trills come down from the high regions and set the atmosphere for a cello feature that leads into a lively dance in duple time that wanders through many keys. The music then floats back up into the opening trills, ending with an open-fifth chord.

The second movement is a French Overture that oscillates in parallel fifths between D Phrygian and Dorian modes. A cello solo in the remote key of F# minor breaks through this ancient-sounding texture, leading to bagpipe-like drones that occupy the rest of the movement as it recalls the opening theme and ends on a crystalline chord.

The finale is energetic, first wavering between dark A minor and C# minor chords. Pizzicato strings are heard for the first time along with a toccata-like part for the piano that lead back to the original bright key of A major for the final cadence.

Akins goes through a plethora of emotions and textures in this concise work, which was such an appropriate finale to this wonderful gathering of composers in the name of Jesus Christ. Hopefully, these very tardy notes will help us all recall an amazing time in southwestern Mississippi, even as we must plan for a virtual gathering next fall, and anticipate a physical re-gathering in 2021.

Some brief website references for the composers: