Front Porch, Jeff Siegfried & Hayley Boggs

Front Porch, Siegfried, & Boggs Transform National Sawdust With New Premieres

On the balmy evening of Sunday, July 28, the hard black and white geometry of National Sawdust seemed to soften thanks to the spirit of camaraderie, collaboration, and fresh new voices from University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Playing to a full house of enthusiastic listeners, the short but sweet 70-minute program featured eight pieces by Gala Flagello, Daniel Zlatkin, Maddy Wildman, Maria Paterno, and Ari Sussman, six of which were world premieres. The program, entitled “Transformations,” was striking not only for the well-curated breadth of ideas and styles, but also for the unique sonic palettes offered up by uncommon instrumental combinations: Jeff Siegfried and Hayley Boggs’ saxophone and voice duo, and Front Porch’s violin, bassoon, piano, and percussion outfit.

Jeff Siegfried opened the concert with Gala Flagello’s Prophecy, originally written in 2018 for horn and newly arranged for solo sax. Marked by a series of declamatory, rising musical lines gradually becoming longer and more intricate, the piece was enhanced by Siegfried’s colorful contrasts between low, melancholic tones and impassioned octave jumps. Joined by Hayley Boggs, emerging in character shrouded in a black veil, the two segued into Daniel Zlatkin’s Channeling: Homage to Hilma af Klint, inspired by a trip to the Guggenheim’s recent retrospective. As Zlatkin eloquently describes in his program note, Klint used abstraction and symbolism in her paintings as a means of accessing “something beyond the frameworks of reality.” Channeling effectively translates this sense of striving towards the immaterial: its four short movements appear to wisp in and out of existence like mist unfurling, Siegfried’s sinuous lines, trills, and atmospheric multiphonics matched by Boggs’ high vibrato and incantatory utterances at the borders of decipherable language. The duo finished their set with Chloe Summers, also by Flagello, in which Boggs switched theatrical gears to portray a new music competition adjudicator comically enamored with the intentionally vapid pseudonym of the piece’s title.

Hayley Boggs and Jeff Siegfried--Photo by Jill Steinberg

Hayley Boggs and Jeff Siegfried–Photo by Jill Steinberg

Following without intermission, Front Porch assumed the stage, immediately launching into the tightly wound, high-energy Disenraged (2018) by Maddy Wildman, also the ensemble’s bassoonist. Undeterred by the lack of repertoire written for their particular instrumentation, Front Porch has premiered more than fourteen new works (with twelve more on the way) in a mere two years of existence. Their mission statement stresses “reimagining the classical concert experience with warmth and love as its foundation.” As each group member took turns introducing the next piece with a touching anecdote about how they first met the composer, it was refreshingly clear to see how Front Porch lives out this interpersonal commitment in practice.

Maria Paterno’s Mouthful of Lilies, based on Savannah Gonsoulin’s bright-eyed poem, allowed each player soloistic moments over a bed of lush, climbing counterpoint, with resonant trills provided by Jacob Rogers on vibraphone. By contrast, Zlatkin’s RASCH personified harsh dissonances and expressive extremes: a three-movement evocation of an imagined fourth character within Robert Schumann’s world of multiple personalities, RASCH catapulted along with cascading violin solos by Benjamin Jackson and even a quotation of the Préambule from Schumann’s Carnaval, executed grandiosely by Karalyn Schubring on piano. Flagello’s Enough (2018), a highly effective piece examining what is “enough” within and beyond musical concerns, showcased the ensemble at its most technically adept, its frenetic downward minor third motif passing quickly from player to player amidst hocketing rhythmic effects.

Front Porch--Photo by Jill Steinberg

Front Porch–Photo by Jill Steinberg

The program ended with Ari Sussman’s gripping, large-scale Mesmera, a meditation on both the sound and meaning of this “fabricated word derived from ‘mesmerize’ or ‘mesmerism,’” as the composer states. Beginning with enveloping, perpetual motion textures in the piano, sweet melodic echoes from the other instruments become more articulated with trills, pizzicati, and noise laden sighs, gradually turning more sinister and dissonant to the point of overtaking and almost upending the whole structure. This drawn out intensity abates, but its imprint remains beneath the returning calm, altering the nature of the listener’s now-uneasy trance. A study in measured manipulation of musical elements, Mesmera brought home the “Transformations” theme of the evening.

Taking the time to thank the composers, the audience, and even the National Sawdust sound engineers, Front Porch graciously exited the stage. That such a concert was conceived, organized, and executed completely by musicians from the University of Michigan served as an important reminder of the crucial role of friendship, pursuing success and exposure together. We professional musicians face many daunting challenges in today’s solo-entrepreneur-oriented freelance economy–a situation that sometimes necessitates lifting our peers up instead of competing against them, working for the success of many rather than one, and collectively producing projects with a creative vision greater than the sum of their parts.