Saturday, December 20, 2008

Doing Hard Time with the Mob

Mobtown Modern: Hard as F#@!
Contemporary Museum, Baltimore, MD
December 15, 2008
(featuring video by Guy Werner)

Mnemosyne (1986) - Brian Ferneyhough
Katayoon Hodjati: bass flute

Dances of Earth and Fire (1987) - Peter Klatzow
Wojciech Herzyk: marimba

Still (2007) - Jason Eckart
Brian Sacawa: baritone saxophone

Gra (1993) - Elliott Carter
Jennifer Everhart: clarinet

Scrivo in Vento (1991) - Elliott Carter
Sarah Eckman McIver: flute

Esprit Rude/Esprit Duox (1985) - Elliott Carter
Jennifer Everhart: clarinet
Sarah Eckman McIver: flute

All Set (1957) - Milton Babbitt
Brian Sacawa: alto saxophone
Christopher Blossom: tenor saxophone
Philip Johnson: trumpet
Todd Sturniolo: trombone
Wojciech Herzyk: vibraphone
Devin Hurd: piano
Joel Ciaccio: double bass
Todd Harrison: drum set

Music with its roots in serialism, "new complexity," set theory or academic pan-tonalism has a reputation for being dry, acerbic stuff.  A movement that has inspired dense and visually beautiful scores that can admittedly tax the cognitive abilities of the listener.  So when Katayoon Hodjati dove into the deep end of Brian Ferneyhough's lush textures of bass flutes there was the unexpected awe of talent, ability and musical extremes forming a compelling answer to why listen to this body of music.  This is compelling material.

Over the span of solo performances that followed came the reinforcement of how this music thrives in presentation.  Guy Werner's video accompaniment - realized in real time in response to the dynamic contours of each performance - added surprising depth to a music more often presented in drier settings.  The juxtaposition and association of video image set against the brutal focus these pieces demand from the performers made for an inviting mix of media that was attractive on multiple levels.

The tension of Jason Eckart's Still, a study of multiphonic technique for the baritone saxophone, made particular demands of Brian Sacawa's abilities to control sustained tones right on the brink of slipping into a chaos beyond control.  A tension that was a beautiful mix of tranquility and complexity.

Milton Babbitt's swinging nod to set theory All Set closed out the evening.  A piece I experienced from behind the piano and over a sequence of rehearsals leading up to the performance.  The final performance achieved a loose, relaxed quality as one finds their way through this high-tempo, atonal work of pre-bop.  The big band timbres of the instruments and the feel of the rhythm section brings an off kilter energy to the angular licks and serial lines that make up the harmonic and melodic material.  While Babbitt and his associates have formed an aesthetic with a reputation for being "serious" and "daunting" it is works like this, and performances such as those featured by the Mobtown Modern, that reveal "fun" and "compelling" to a body of music that spans as full a spectrum as any movement.  And there are many reasons to listen to it.

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