Old Dominion University New Music Ensemble: Still Berning!
Chandler Hall, December 5, 2017
Review by Adelaide Coles

I love venturing to new music concerts. They put me delightfully on edge. What will I hear? What will I see? It’s always a refreshing change from the standard Bach, Beethoven, Brahms…so, how about a program of Leonard Bernstein’s music?

Joined by members of the ODU Percussion Ensemble, the ODU New Music Ensemble gave an hour-long concert celebrating the centenary of Bernstein’s (1918-1990) birth and the composer/conductor/educator's enormous influence on the arts in America and beyond. The wide-ranging concert spanned light-hearted musical theater selections and arrangements, sensual art song, character music for piano 4-hands, and closed with an intensely personal chamber work.

At age thirty-nine, Bernstein became the first American-born-and-trained conductor of the New York Philharmonic. His world class status as a conductor took him to Vienna, Israel, London, and orchestras around the world. As an educator, his television programs introduced classical music and jazz to all of America. His Young People's Concerts, broadcast from 1958-1972 on CBS, comprised fifty-three different programs and were viewed by as many as 5.7 million people. In 1954, the Omnibus telecast on CBS featured Bernstein's lecture/performance on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Bernstein’s work and influence as a conductor and educator was widely noted and extolled during his lifetime. But the conductor’s achievements on the podium overshadowed Bernstein the composer, an essential facet of the gifted man which we are only just beginning to come to terms with 27 years after his death. As more of his compositions are rediscovered and performed for today’s audiences, time and again Bernstein’s engaging spirit shines through, always melodic, always catchy, always communicating on a human level—the quintessential example, the universally captivating West Side Story. In an illuminating pre-concert discussion, New Music Ensemble Director Andrey Kasparov pondered this human connection.

The first work was Three Arrangements by David J. Elliott, performed with panache by flutist Hyorim Kim and Andrey Kasparov on piano. The set opened with Simple Song, a jazzy, ruminative number from Bernstein’s Mass (1971). Bernstein’s Mass is an eclectic large-scale work quite different from the traditional masses of “classical” music, combining a symphony with singers, actors, synthesizers, electric guitar, and more. (This unorthodox treatment would be imitated by multiple composers, notably by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke in his bizarre 1995 opera on the 16th-century book of the same name, Historia von D. Johann Fausten.) Bernstein’s Mass was performed by the Virginia Symphony at Chrysler Hall in 2010.

Next was the good-natured Lucky To Be Me from On The Town (1949), with the flute and piano singing together atop a spirited walking bass line. Finishing the set was the vivacious Oh, Happy We from the operetta Candide, one of Bernstein’s most well-known compositions. Ms. Kim brought the aria’s operatic leaps to life on her instrument with sprightly ease, imbuing the short piece with brilliant energy and zest. The sophistication of Ms. Kim’s playing gave these simple show tunes a warmth that led directly into the listeners’ hearts. Ms. Kim recently received two national awards including a first place in the 2018 Florida Flute Association Competition.

Soprano Cailin Crane, runner-up of the 2015 Lisa Relaford Coston Voice Competition, sang three songs that highlighted the human voice as an instrument, with Dr. Kasparov at the piano. Ms. Crane began with the enigmatic Piccola Serenata (1979), a setting of scat syllables, their meaning just beyond the cusp of understanding. Next was Silhouette (Galilee) (1951), a short song of youth and passion, inspired by a Lebanese folksong Bernstein heard while visiting Israel. Bernstein retells the Arabic text in English, with one verse repeated in Arabic. To my ears, this song was a musical embodiment of chiaroscuro, its alternation between light and dark harmonies amidst odd, changing meters beguiling.

The final song of the set was My New Friends, Bernstein's contribution to a collaborative musical, The Madwoman of Central Park West (1979). Wistfully and with beautiful expression, Ms. Crane invites the audience to “walk right in” to a show tune that could have been written yesterday, her precise control over her instrument enviable.

Next was Bridal Suite in 2 parts with 3 Encores (1960), a farcical piece for piano duo that showcases Bernstein’s comic genius, composed to celebrate the marriage of his friends Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman. Bernstein pokes fun at the “sacred institution” and engages in some amusing social commentary. All this in a piano duo? Just you wait.

Part I begins with Prelude (on familiar tunes) as pianist Andrey Kasparov launches into a rendition of Bach’s C-Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, over which pianist Nichole Dorobanov layers the melody “Just In Time” from Adolph Green’s musical collaboration Bells are Ringing, one-handed. This sets up an amusing choreography as the piece progresses; the pianists are instructed to play with both hands, one hand, or none at all.

After the Prelude’s satirical ending (peppered with quotations from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Strauss’s Don Juan, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue!) comes Three Variations on Adolph F#yllis Green, a cryptogram akin to Bach’s Bb A C H (B natural) motif. The first variation is Love Song, in which each pianist takes one hand to resolutely play her and his own melody while completely ignoring one another. Ah, true love. The second and third variations, titled Chaplinesque and Chaplinade after the British comedian and director, are short and pithy, with the pianists’ hands acting as visual punchlines to the slapstick humor, unable to keep up a romantic façade for long.

Part II begins with an Interlude (Bell, Book, and Rabbi), a solemn modal duet that ends with a colossal bell tone, pronouncing, with the subtlety of a Mel Brooks film, that the couple is married! This leads directly into the couple’s first dance, a charming canonical waltz. Then comes a Cha-cha-cha (thanks to Bernstein’s lifelong interest in Latin American music) where the pianists pass the namesake motif back and forth with good humor, and finally a traditional Hora, full of undulating melodies and rousing rhythms.

The Three Encores, Obligatory give a sneak peek into married life. Encore 1: Modern Music (Argument) is an agitated, dissonant duet with the two pianists arguing with reflected versions of a 12-tone row. Encore 2: Old Music (Reconciliation) brings the couple back together with a monastic canon, pleading with one another to forgive and forget their foolish feud. Encore 3: Magyar Lullaby, features the pianists’ hands overlapped as the reunited couple returns to their familiar habits and affections. An outstanding performance by Ms. Dorobanov and Dr. Kasparov on this hidden gem!

The final piece was the powerful Halil: Nocturne for Flute, Percussion, and Piano (1987). Originally an orchestral piece written for flute, strings, and percussion in 1981, this chamber version was arranged by Bernstein in 1987. Halil (Hebrew for ‘flute’) is in honor of 19-year-old Israeli flutist Yadin Tanenbaum, killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. “I never knew Yadin but I know his spirit.” Bernstein has said of this work that it is formally unlike any other work he has written. Percussionists David Walker, Sarah Williams, and Jonathan Wudijono joined flutist Kim and pianist Dorobanov for the performance of this dark piece, conducted by Dr. Kasparov, who shaped the brooding narrative from moment to moment.

The work begins with rhapsodic musings on a 12-tone row by the solo flute in tandem with the piano, while whispers of metallic brushes on a snare drum accentuate the airy frequencies in the flute’s timbre. With increasing frequency, interruptions of cymbals, gong, tam-tam, snare, and bass drum punctuate the rising turmoil of the flute, which attempts to quell its own fears. An uneasy quiet settles over the ensemble. The piano takes over with turbulent tremolos colored by gong and snare hits, and brings us to a sinister development section of jazz motifs (think “Cool” from West Side Story.)

The jazzy character belies a darkness that bursts from within in a frightening climax. The flute canters above the sinister atmosphere with shrieks and disbelieving trills, failing miserably in bringing back a semblance of normalcy. Again, the fear builds to fever pitch, and the snare drum cracks like a whip. The flute stops and the nightmare returns, the texture resembling Shostakovich played on an out-of-control piano roll. Unexpectedly, the jazz motif makes a return, this time as a catalyst to connect the worlds of dissonance and tonality. Bernstein’s melodiousness shines through once more, but in an atmosphere of stark loneliness, delayed downbeats heightening the feeling of loss. The flute returns for a final valediction, and the protracted last notes fade into nothingness.

Halil is a work of brutal juxtapositions and conflict, and is not easy to listen to. I found myself out of breath in several moments as scene after scene of human emotion took its toll. Ms. Kim’s and Ms. Dorobanov’s evocative playing carried the difficult 15-minute work.

It was a shame this concert wasn’t better attended; it featured an astonishingly high level of mastery and polish by student performers, as well as a compelling program of infrequently-heard music by an American giant. Well done, ODU New Music Ensemble!

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