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Da Capo Chamber Players: Celebrating Charles Wuorinen’s 80th Year

A celebratory concert: dfficult, important music, beautifully played by a major chamber group.

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The Da Capo Chamber Players (Photo credit: Jill LeVine)

Jean Ballard Terepka

Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

The Da Capo Chamber Players’ recent concert at Merkin Concert Hall, billed as a celebration for composer Charles Wuorinen’s eightieth year, was an intimate, unexpectedly informal event. The five-member Da Capo group was joined by one additional musician. The small audience consisted primarily of Da Capo players’ friends, Wuorinen’s friends, colleague musicians and composers, and friends of friends; the evening had a low-keyed New York City feel to it, a sense of purposeful and convivial gathering for the happy consideration and presentation of one remarkable composer’s music.

Though featuring five Wuorinen chamber works dating from 1963 to 2008, the concert also included two works by younger composers, Jonathan Dawe and David Fulmer; Dawe’s work was a world premiere. By presenting the Dawe and Fulmer works, the Da Capo players felicitously emphasized the fertility of Wuorinen’s influence on contemporary and upcoming composers; both composers teach, Dawe at Juilliard and Fulmer at Hunter.

The music of all three composers is extremely difficult in at least one fundamental sense: only the most skilled musicians can play it … let alone play it well. Played badly, these composers’ music is unintelligible, an unlovely, screechy, unhinged mess. The Da Capo Chamber Players are more than merely skilled: all distinguished musicians with rich careers separate from this pierrot ensemble, Curtis Macomber/violin, Chris Gross/cello, Patricia Spencer/flute, Meighan Stoops/clarinet and Steven Beck/pianist, together with their guest colleague, Lois Martin/viola, have virtuosic and absolute command of their instruments. Wuorinen’s music builds on complex rhythm patterns and shifting pitch relationships; these musicians’ technical excellence makes for the kind of musical clarity and spaciousness in which Wuorinen’s references, wit, subtle sensuality and cerebral play can be most fully displayed.

The program opened with an historical scene-setting. Joan’s, written in 1979 for the Da Capo Chamber Players, was conceived as an affectionate offering to Joan Tower, pianist, one of the founding members of the original Da Capo Players in 1969 and a distinguished composer in her own right, established the artistic integrity of the evening. As the piece moved from short-phrase experiments to almost melodic certainty, something like a revelation of passion’s legitimacy emerged; tremulousness extended itself briefly into lyricism. The internal coherence of the music resulted from the musicians’ absolute trust of each other, evident as they passed the urgent forward movement of the piece among them.

The second piece, Wuorinen’s Flute Variations I, written in 1963, was played beautifully by Patricia Spencer, the only current Da Capo member remaining from the original founding group. A quintessential early-Wuorinen work, this piece takes the flute’s complete three-octave vertical span and places within it wild angles and runs, ferocious stabs, flirtatious thrusts and impudent thrills. This flute music captures both the metallic essence of the modern flute and the inescapable organic physicality of the living breath; the piece seems to examine how life inhabits artificial structures. Spencer played absolute discipline as the vehicle for abandon. Spencer played with loving verve, concluding her bravura performance with a smile of simultaneous modesty and panache.

The third piece was Dawe’s On Again, Ockeghem, written for this occasion. Dawe’s choice of fifteenth century Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem as a conversation-partner across time was inspired and delightful. Ockeghem’s structural ingenuity – his prolation canons, for instance – and his ability to incorporate syncopated meters within long, unifying musical gestures provided inventive starting points for Dawe’s own lavish play with “a hyper-richness of intricacies” (in Dawe’s own words). The result is a work of multiple sensibilities engaged in multiple simultaneous dances; within the pierrot group, duets formed, conversed, then broke off to find new pairs. Medieval sounds were made modern; modern sounds were chased by history. As the five instruments regularly – briefly – played together, expansive lushness almost prevailed, only to be pulled back into jazzy wit and quite modern assertiveness. Only nine minutes long, this piece was lovely; audience, musicians and composer all beamed happily at each other during the applause when it was over.

The last piece in the first half of the program was Wuorinin’s 1968 String Trio. Da Capo violinist Macomber and cellist Gross were joined by guest artist Lois Martin, violist, an artist for whom Wuornin composed Viola Variations in 2008.  The String Trio, described by Wuorinen as “a one movement work of slowly unfolding lines and ever-increasing drama, with an accelerating degree of complexity,” shows a particularly clear evidence of the composer’s interest in Indian ragas as a form of development. In performance – as in listening – it is easy to stumble in moving through the Trio’s tricky rhythms and eccentric harmonic patterns.

Macomber, Gross and Martin did stumble. After several minutes, at an almost immediately identifiable though barely perceptible signal from Martin, the three players stopped, had a wordless half-second eye-contact consultation, and began the piece again. Something had evidently gone wrong. Further on, there was an apparent second mis-step, and a second re-start, though this time from a section-beginning, not the whole piece. Without a score, it was hard for even the most musically sophisticated and literate in the audience to figure out quite what was going on. What was clear, however, as Macomber, Gross and Martin finally brought the piece to its conclusion, was the artistic integrity of the musicians’ commitment to the score: sloppy cover-up for mistakes that would compromise the music was simply unimaginable. Better to begin again.

In a bigger hall or a more formal setting, the mistakes and their rectification might not have been forgiven. But in this context, the determination to get it right – to see to it that composer and music, musicians and performance were equally honored – was the appropriate way to go: creativity was protected by correction. The audience expressed its appreciation of the decision with warm applause.

After an intermission of about twenty minutes, the concert resumed with Wuorinen’s Trio for Flute, Bass Clarinet and Piano, composed in 2008. This work, the most recently written Wuorinen piece of the evening, felt more relaxed – though no less intellectually urgent – than the earlier works on the program. The final project of this barely ten-minute-long piece seemed to be the arrival at near symphonic unity of initially discursive musical explorations embodied in each instrument; the concluding coherence of sound was gracious and generous.

The next piece was David Fulmer’s “They Turn Their Channeled Faces to the Sky,” written in 2012. This short piano-violin duet felt old-fashioned in this heady Wuorinen environment. It was an atmospheric poem, an examination of surface tensions, of various sound-hits on different kinds of flatness, a lovely rain-scape. Its gentle sweetness set the audience up for the last piece of the evening, Wuorinen’s Fortune.

Wuorinen’s “Fortune,” written in 1979, the same year as the concert’s opening Joan’s, offered an exceptionally thoughtful conclusion to the evening. This violin-cello-clarinet-piano quartet consists of two parts – I. Before and II. After – that, in Wuorinen’s explanation, “celebrates a functional harmony which has room for both old-fashioned and new-fangled pitch-relations.” It also celebrates virtuosity. If the piece sets out to explore before and after, its conclusion settles on now. In this sense, “Fortune” offers a paradigm Wuorinen enterprise.

The composer’s invitation is to attentiveness. The composer presupposes the presence of the music’s ingredients all around us; when the ingredients’ intelligible assemblage has been achieved, when the musicians are playing ‘together,’ then music has been made. The goal is not expression, but architecture; the successfully constructed edifice – the place within which living will take place – is victorious. The demands of this aesthetic constructing are huge: the sheer stamina required of the musicians in works like Fortune is considerable. Stoops, Macomber, Gross and Beck’s playing made raw energy both elegant and eloquent.

At the end of the concert, Wuorinen stepped up from the audience onto the stage. He applauded the musicians; the musicians applauded him; embraces were exchanged; the small audience clapped more loudly than one knew it could; there were even some near-raucous shouts to be heard, as though Wuorinen were a rock star.

It was an evening of complex, rewarding music – never undifficult – presented by superb musicians … a good way to celebrate the career and contributions of a remarkable composer.

Da Capo Chamber Players: Celebrating Charles Wuorinen’s 80th Year (April 12, 2018)

Merkin Concert Hall, 129 W. 67th Street, in Manhattan

For more information: http://www.dacapochamberplayers.org, http://www.charleswuorinen.com

Running time: two hours with one intermission

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Jean Ballard Terepka
About Jean Ballard Terepka (116 Articles)
Jean Ballard Terepka, a native and life-long New Yorker, has been writing about music for twenty years. In addition to her continuing career as an independent educational consultant, Terepka also works as an archivist and historian with specialties in American cultural, intellectual and religious history. Terepka serves on the Executive Committee of the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force and on the Board of National Episcopal Historians and Archivists; she is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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