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Verge Ensemble: The Pleasure of Listening

The prevailing belief in the general public is that new classical music is, at best, challenging to listen and, at worse, painful. On September 13, 2009, the Dresser had the pleasure of attending Verge Ensemble's 2009-2010 opening season concert at the Corcoran Gallery Art in Washington, DC. Verge, formerly known as the Contemporary Music Forum, presented six works, one of which was a world premiere and three, Washington, DC, premieres. The overall concert was predominately tonal and listener friendly.

Opening the concert was Harvey Sollberger's "Sunflowers," which he wrote in 1976. Flautist David Whiteside and vibraphonist Barry Dove entered the stage each carrying a wine bottle planted with a single sunflower. Indeed this gesture, which seemed straight out of the 1960's love-and-peace movement, set the tone for the Verge concert. As this piece opened, the flute wove a mysterious and languorous melody with accents from the vibraphone. When the piece heated up, occasional jazz rhythms were introduced and the flautist hummed into his instrument. A short and shrill passage on the piccolo briefly changed the prevailing calm. The Dresser guesses that to experience Sollberger playing "Sunflowers" (he is an accomplished flautist noted for exploring new performing techniques) would add another dimension to this piece.

AudreyAndrist.jpg"Birds in Warped Time II" (1980) by Somei Satoh organically followed "Sunflowers" with its wavering, oriental inflection that transitioned into something sounding like a gypsy serenade. The performances by violinist James Stern and pianist Audrey Andrist was both passionate and technically inspired.

What particularly drew the Dresser to this concert was the opportunity to hear a composition by Paul Moravec, who recently premiered his first opera The Letter. The third piece offered in the Verge program was Moravec's "Passacaglia" (2005) for piano, violin, and cello. This composition is a rich brocade of rapid fingering on the piano, passionate intonations from the cello, and dialectic responses from the violin. Violinist James Stern, cellist Steve Honigberg, and pianist Audrey Andrist played "Passacaglia" with precision and mounting verve until the close, which sounded like a whistling wind but resolved into a satisfying close. If the concert had ended at this point, the Dresser would have been totally satisfied.

The second half of the concert brought the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff's "Six Miniatures for Violin and Percussion" (2008), the DC premiere of Kristin Kuster's "Perpetual Noon" (2008), and Robert Gibson's "A Sound Within" (1982). Robert Gibson who was a member of the Contemporary Music Forum from 1987 to 2000 and who is professor and director of the School of Music at the University of Maryland, College Park, stood up and introduced his piece saying that words often inspire his compositions. "A Sound Within" took its lead from a poem by Yosano Akiko (1878-1942):

Amidst the notes
of my koto is another
deep mysterious tone,
a sound that comes from
with my own breast.
(translation by Kenneth Rexroth. Copyright © 1974, 1976 by Kenneth Rexroth)

What the `Dresser found interesting about Gibson's music is that while this particular piece for piano had some oriental-sounding material, especially in the upper register in the first movement, the musical environment was western. The composition was divided into three movements with the first and second being similar in mood, pace, and structure. The final movement sped up and demonstrated what remarkably agile fingers Audrey Andrist has.

Kuster's "Perpetual Noon" for flute and piano was a demanding piece for the flute with mechanical and sometimes plodding piano accompaniment (no reflection on pianist Audrey Andrist's talent) that made the Dresser think how naked the flute line was. Carole Bean played long flute passages requiring taxing breath control. Ms. Kuster has also written "Perpetual Afternoon (2009)," another composition for flute and piano and the Dresser wonders how this piece might relate to the one heard.

dove_barry.jpgThe closing work of the Verge concert was Leshnoff's "Six Miniatures for Violin and Percussion." The performing percussionist Barry Dove commissioned the work. Leshnoff introduced the work and revealed that Dove has a large and exotic collection of percussive instruments that the composer was invited to consider for the creation of this work. However, Leshnoff kept the piece rather simple using instruments in this way:
1. "Flowing" (marimba, violin)
2. "Shining" (vibraphone, crotales, violin)
3. "Pointed" (bongos, frame drum, violin)
4. "Meditation" (gong, marimba, violin)
5. "Glowing" (marimba, vibraphone, violin)
6. "Fast" (marimba, violin)

Violinist Lina Bahn gave a sympathetic contribution to this work focused on the color and texture of percussion instruments. The Dresser found that part 1 "Flowing" and part 5 "Glowing" reminded her of film soundtracks of the 1950s--in short: romantic and accessible. "Shining" created a mysterious mood of time passing and was created in part by Dove bowing the vibraphone. "Pointed" and "Fast" both exhibited exuberant rhythms. Resonating with "Shining," "Meditation" showed off Bahn's virtuosity. Overall the piece was satisfying and demanded little from the listener, which in the world of new music is not necessarily a compliment. However, Leshnoff is known for his romantic styling and certainly the Dresser would be happy to hear more of his music.

The next Verge Ensemble concert will take place January 10, 2010, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Dresser looks forward to the next program which offers several Washington, DC, premieres and one world premiere.

The Dresser believes everyone develops his or her own private ways of listening or not. In "How She Learned to Listen," Nancy Krygowski provides a psychology of listening that the Dresser thinks is appropriate for how to experience new classical music, which often offers unexpected undercurrents of sound.


When the father's car pulls into the drive (it was green, he used chewed
Juicy Fruit and Bondo to cover the rust), she slips off to hide

in the closet, the one used to hang coats still cold from the outside air.
(The muffler was bad, an unplaced rattle rattled his nerves.)

She slides behind wool, long and black, behind the brothers'
hooded sweatshirts, the smell of burning leaves. She slips

like air that swallows sound, lets it go steers clear of her own
flowered slicker, afraid its lightness will tip off a sequence of sorry

clinks, empty hangers that clang like a sideways U of the fence gate
as a hand shoves it up (and the gate swings open and a boy walks in.) She stands

like a lamp, like a ketchup bottle, like two trees on a windless day.
She stands like a bookcase, a refrigerator, like a broken leg. She stands until

the father opens the closet door, head turned, arm reaching like a blindfolded kid with a stick, a piñata. She sticks her arms out, yells surprise! (as if it really were)

in her high coat-muddled voice. He goes along with this, mouth puckered
in a small O. (A tunnel. This is where I came from, she thinks.)

Sometime later, she can sit in a room full of people , hear behind their voices
the secret of a heater turning on, the soon-to-be clank of air trapped in pipes.

Nancy Krygowski 

from Velocity

Copyright © 2007 Nancy Krygowski


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