DSO festival presents contemporary works with a Parisian connection

Wed Apr 24, 2024 at 1:22 pm
By William McGinney
Two works by Unsuk Chin were performed at the opening concert of the “Paris Refraction” festival Tuesday night at SMU.

Caruth Auditorium on the SMU campus hosted the first concert of “Paris Refraction.” This “micro-festival” of recent contemporary works was presented by ensembleNEWSRQ—-a chamber group specializing in contemporary repertoire, accompanied by principal members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and members of SMU’s new music ensemble, SYZYGY.  

The concert, titled “Soloists and Sinfoniettas,” consisted of works featuring soloists in conjunction with a larger chamber ensemble led by DSO assistant conductor Maurice Cohn. 

“Paris Refractions” centers on works having a connection to the French city, whether as the place of composition, the source of a commission by an entity such as Ensemble Intercontemporain or IRCAM, or a source of inspiration through the musical activity of the city in the second half of the twentieth century. All the works also reflect the high modernist aesthetic of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen (both of whom are represented in the final concert).  

Unsuk Chin’s Acrostic Wordplay, is subtitled “Seven Scenes from Fairy Tales,” each based on an excerpt from either The Neverending Story or Through the Looking Glass.  Chin reworked the texts for each scene in different ways:  removing and recombining vowels and consonants, reversing the text so that it reads “backwards,” or other means of making the original texts unintelligible. 

According to Chin, each scene evokes an emotion or state of mind and each of rhe implied moods range widely. “Hide and Seek” provided a mysterious opening built principally on a drone. “The Game of Chance” evokes a playful scherzo, enhanced by its nonsensical text.  The final scene, “From the Old Time,” is built on a drone like the opening scene, but with an assertive, declamatory setting that contrasts with the mysterious mood of the opening. 

Throughout each movement, the instruments mimic and mirror the sounds of the vocalist—here, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon—with the gestures changing according the intended mood of the scene.  Extended techniques also shape the mood of each scene; “Four Seasons in Five Verses” made use of “Sprechstimme,” or interpolation between speech and song, and several of the movements saw Fitz Gibbon whistling tones that were then picked up by the ensemble. Despite the piece’s modernist aesthetic, the implied moods come through quite clearly and effectively, evident in the applause given by the audience to the piece and the performance by Fitz Gibbon.

In Kaija Saariaho’s Graal Théâtre, the composer has stated her experience with the overwhelming and intimidating history of the genre of the violin concerto. Graal Théâtre is set in two movements, the first of which is comparatively slow and contemplative, while the second is more animated. In the spirit of 20th century high modernism, neither movement follows a prescribed form, but instead emerges out of the melodic and gestural ideas introduced by the violin soloist that are then echoed, extended or otherwise developed by the ensemble.

The musical ideas introduced by soloist Samantha Bennett included glassy tones sounded on the bridge of the instrument, agitated arpeggios, lyrical lines and double stops sounding the interval of a tritone, evoking the atmosphere of George Crumb’s Black Angels.  All of these ideas were taken up in turn by the ensemble.  The persistent drones, slow pace and lack of a consistent pulse within the first movement gave Bennett’s musical gestures there the aura of a series of incantations that then worked their way through the group.  

The second movement proceeded much like the first but differed in its incorporation of a more distinct and steady beat and generally more agitated gestures.  Bennett’s part, was virtuosic yet never merely flashy, instead blending in an ongoing dialogue with the group, ultimately closing in an arabesque played on the bridge.

Regarding her Double Concerto for Prepared Piano and Ensemble (2002), Chin noted in an interview her desire “to bring about the fusion of the two groups of instruments – soloists and ensemble – into a homogenous whole, so that the result is a single and new body of sound.”  Indeed, pianist Conor Hanick and DSO percussionist George Nickson appeared to operate more as a unit than in opposition. 

As with Graal Théâtre, the concerto grows out of the interactions between instruments. There is much contrast in articulation between the struck percussion instruments and the winds, brass and strings that are able to sustain and even bend notes. The second aspect is how Chin exploits this contrast and uses it to produce composite gestures by combining struck percussion with sustained instruments on the same pitch.

After beginning with steady ostinato patterns in the percussion instruments and piano, the pitches making up these ostinati become more erratic as the rhythms are increasingly interrupted.  The patterns gradually break down, giving way to a more pointillistic texture in which isolated pitches sounded by percussion instruments are answered by crescendos on the same pitch by combinations of strings or winds.  

The prepared piano produces its own exotic percussion sounds that complement those of the xylophones and marimbas.  For the Double Concerto, only select notes of the piano are altered, but while the unaltered notes sounded clearly and distinctly, the altered notes seemed lost in the overall texture throughout much of this piece.  It’s not clear whether this was part of the “homogenous whole” that Chin described or whether the prepared piano sounds were simply overwhelmed by the rest of the percussion instruments.

Programmes 2 through 4 of “Paris Refraction” take place Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Caruth Auditorium on the SMU campus. The entire program will be featured again May 9 through 11 at the Historic Asolo Theater in Sarasota, Florida. dallassymphony.org/

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