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newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble: “Hijinks”

Ask a typical concert patron to describe contemporary classical music in one word and the usual suspects “loud” and “dissonant” appear. “Amusing” or “comical” rarely make the cut. Yet, a growing number of composers are using the expanded palates, freer forms and contemporary cultural references characteristic of new classical music to create works that not only challenge the ear but bring a smile to a face. Kansas City, Missouri’s newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble, now in their 20th season, paid homage to the musically humorous in a concert appropriately titled “Hijinks!” on Saturday November 10, 2012, at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.

newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble. Photo Credit: Scott Unrein

The newEar musicians performing this evening program were Thomas Aber on Clarinet, Anne-Marie Brown on Violin, Jan Faidley on Saxophone, Lawrence Figg on Cello, Mark Lowry on Percussion, Lysa Pherigo on Flute and Robert Pherigo on Piano, with Steven Davis conducting. Composers Evan Chambers, James Mobberly and Lansing McLoskey, whose works were on the program, were in attendance. Also in the audience were Pulitzer Prize winning composer Zhou Long and composer Chen Yi.

David Heuser’s Catching Updrafts (2000) set a fine example to follow. The composer coaxed sounds both soaring and eerily static from the clarinet, violin, piano and cello, imagining “a bird at the pinnacle of it’s ‘static soar’, expending no energy to stay aloft.” The violin, sliding micro-tonally upward, encourages the others to soar to the static heights, realized through the thin textures of the instruments’ highest registers. The updraft dies and the flock descends in clusters of crashing, wailing chords. The flock struggles to rise, catches another draft, soaring to the clear, cold sonority of effortless flight. This simple program was grippingly realized through the work’s imaginative orchestration and the committed performance.

Dviraag (2010) by Asha Srinivasan for soprano saxophone and cello celebrates the composer’s Indian culture. Based freely on Indian classical music principles, this linear piece (Indian music eschews harmony) evoked sitar master Ravi Shankar as well as jazz elements. Jan Faidley was superb on the saxophone, at one point imitating the tabla drums under the cello’s jazzy, melismatic line.

The evening’s disappointment was the premiere of Lansing Mc Loskey’s Specific Gravity: 2.72. Frankly, the piece was not quite ready for its debut; a 3rd movement was dropped at the last minute. Scored for six instruments and percussion, the work (a tribute to newEar’s “Emerald Anniversary”, thus the reference to emerald’s specific gravity number) was intended to be crystalline, shimmering and radiant green. But the lack of any organic flow and unimaginative sounds made the work dull and jagged.

Pauline Oliveros describes The Well (1982) as a guided improvisation for any ensemble based on five words: listen, soar, support, match and merge, and a seven note scale. The ensemble began the work even before the audience settled in from intermission as they wandered on and around the stage. The saxophone and bass clarinet ensconced themselves in the audience and commented on the larger group’s progress. The Well‘s unpredictability and lack of pretense embodied the true essence of comedy.

Composer Pauline Oliveros. Photo credit: Vinciane Verguethen

Evan Chambers’ Thorn and Flare (2010) for clarinet, violin and piano drew inspiration from the composer’s exposure to Albanian traditional music, including its often mournful improvisation. In two distinct movements, Thorn explored the darker timbre of the trio with hints of anger and despair only to be diffused by Flare, a rhythmic tour-de-force, all skittering and out of control, finally flaming out in sputtering sparks.

James Mobberley’s A Hint of Mischief (1999) for cello, violin, clarinet, saxophone, flute, piano and percussion keeps its mayhem bubbling under the surface of the work, only letting it boil over for brief moments: a solo cello hinting a weeping gypsy melody; the cello and marimba bouncing a single note around like a beach ball, getting progressively livelier until the whole ensemble joins in; a bass clarinet playfully exploring its range. The fun of this colorful piece comes from watching the struggle to keep the lid on the whole thing. But the simmering pressure has to be released, thus the whole ensemble breaks into see-sawing staccato chords that bring the work to an empathic “so there!” close.

None of the pieces on this newEar program descended to cartoon music filled with silly, childish effects. “Hijinks” featured music to celebrate, entertain and enjoy, filled with the positive energy and drive that leads to “hijinks” in all its forms.

Don Clark is a classical music enthusiast, free lance concert reviewer and blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @Donaldopato.