Here the Dresser presents herself as a student and not a reviewer.
On May 15, 2010, composer John Supko and the percussionists Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins of the Meehan/Perkins Duo provided critique to the Levine School of Music composition students of Frances Thompson McKay. The event was funded in part by grants from the D. C. Commission on the Arts and the Randy Hostetler Living Room Music Foundation as well as sponsors of the Meehan/Perkins Duo including Vic Firth Sticks and Mallets, Black Swamp Percussion, and Pearl/Adams Musical Instruments. The Dresser will say, despite the non-review disclaimer of this essay, that the master class concert offered a remarkable set of compositions with accomplished performers.
Levine School students and faculty played seven works by seven composition students. All of the compositions included percussion. The Dresser will discussion what she learned following the order of composition presentation.
Fantasy for Percussion and Piano by M. C. Starr
In this composition, the piano has a conversation with timpani drums with a few comments from the snare. What is particularly interesting about what Mr. Starr does in this work is that occasionally the pitches achieved by the timpani blend with piano chords. John Supko phrased this as "pitch material of the timpani melds with the piano chords." One of the problems of this piece was how to contain the timpani so it would not overwhelm the piano. Mr. Starr said he had considered using rototoms, tune-able drums that have no shell and are not as loud as the timpani. Supko said he preferred the "Cadillac sound" of the timpani but thought the snares did not enhance the work. Todd Meehan suggested that the timpani drums need to be placed not in front of the piano but to one side so that a better balance of sound could be achieved. Meehan also said that between the pianist and timpanist, a "flexible leadership" needed to be established.
Black Line for snare drums by Aaron Burger
Supko noted the challenge in writing a solo composition for the snare drum. He asked the composer, who was also the performer, if he could "push the rhythmic language of this piece" so that the vocabulary could be larger. Supko suggested going for a mysterious sound that would include softer dynamics that might be made by also using a brush. "How about making one end the stick and the other the brush?" In the conversation between Supko and Burger, the Dresser also realized how inventive the title is. The title refers to a subway line colored black and therefore the composer, a graduating high school senior, was actually giving himself an unusual terrain to explore--was there something dark, sinister, mysterious about the transportation experienced on this line?
Bells for bowed psaltery and percussion by Nicholas Turnbull
At age 13, composer Nick Turnbull collects stringed instruments. Among his collection is a compact zither-like instrument called the psaltery, which he played for the performance of "Bells." To the Dresser, the piece seemed like a medieval folk tune. Supko while taken with the sound of the psaltery urged the composer to use the instrument as a "straight forward melodic agent versus using it to create atmospheric sound."
Fantasy in F-sharp Minor by Michael Yue
(for violin, cello, percussion, and piano)
"Full stick on the grand," professor McKay suggested as the instruments were being positioned for this composition. This was in contrast to Starr's "Fantasy for Percussion and Piano" where the lid of the grand piano was only opened halfway when it needed full volume to balance sound with the percussion. And from the fully exposed piano harp, the Dresser could hear the fluid arpeggios. The music was Romantic in flavor and heavy with emotional content that was unexpectedly complex. The Dresser reread the composer's bio several times. A sixth grader and yes, he looked like an elementary school boy, not even old enough for middle school. Supko cautiously queried, "Have you heard of a minor Neapolitan or a Neapolitan chord because that is what you are doing with some of the chords? The minor Neapolitan chord is something Eric Satie often used and it's a rather sophisticated harmony." No, Master Yue was not familiar with the term. Supko was impressed at the doubling between piano and vibraphone and how the "notes are glittering like stars in the sky." The Dresser thought the string instruments and piano represented Western classical music in this composition while the vibraphones leaned East. After the concert, she spoke with the composer who said that he had travelled to Taiwan and yes, his Chinese background came out in the vibraphones.
Trio Sonata for flute, cello, percussion, and piano by Jules Metcalf-Burton
Supko said something about this composer's composition reminded him of the "idiosyncratic music" of Franco Donatoni. The Dresser isn't familiar with Donatoni but has learned in her Internet search that he worked with the 12-tone scale, which is also what this home-schooled high school junior was doing. The Dresser found the exchange between the flute and violin satisfyingly engaging. One unusual thing is the bowing of the vibraphone. This accent was performed not by the percussion who was busy with the timpani but by the composer. One suggestion was that the violinist might be able to perform that part of the composition but certainly not with the violin bow. Supko also pointed out that the title of the work was misleading since a sonata is a multi-movement work and this was not.
Three Short Pieces for Vibraphone and Piano by Ben Gunby
The consensus from Supko and the Meehan-Perkins Duo was that this delicate and sophisticated work begged for more music. The composer, a sophomore at a DC private school, said he would think about expanding the piece.
Streams for oboe, clarinet, percussion, violin and cello by Steve Messner
Supko characterized this sophisticated composition as having a Steve Reich attitude.
In Cliff Bernier's "Estero Beach," the poet captures the musical voice of nature and how an artist consumes, digests, and writes that down. The poem is an apt homage to this extraordinary master class at the Levine School.
The voice of the palm fronds
draws its breath from the surf,
the measured exhalations
of waves on Estero Beach,
the cathedral of coconuts
on its bank, cantatas
scored with serranos and limes.
Julio translates the voice
with the nib of a pen
from a chair in a cantina,
the loops of his l's and t's
the stems of olives and figs,
his lyric Tequila
in a shot glass.
Eucalyptus and jacaranda
whisper the rolled r's
of the tide in his ears,
the prayer of the surf
hymned by paisanos.
Julio pauses to listen to the voice,
and notes in the layered
rosary of leaves
that compose the pastorals
of the evening
the ascending breeze in the cantina,
the lines on his page,
the tortilla o's of the moon.
by Cliff Bernier
from Earth Suite
Copyright © 2010 Cliff Bernier