dal niente serves up two contrasted world premieres

Tue May 04, 2010 at 2:27 pm

By Dennis Polkow

There is always a sense of occasion about a world premiere but with the new-music ensemble dal niente, Sunday evening’s concert brought not one, but two world premieres: an Oboe Concerto by British composer Robert Keeley and tinted sky, the latest piece from dal niente founder, Kirsten Broberg.

The Keeley concerto, scored for oboe alternating with English horn against strings, opened the program and had a jazzy, meandering quality, often with jagged edges. The work consists of music cells or small gestures that fan out in parallel motion and fill in harmonically as the string texture surrounds the emerging solo oboe.

At first the oboe is just one voice in a chatty crowd of strings.  But soloist Andy Nogal reaches a position of prominence when he has a chance to strut his stuff in a cadenza with a mad snake-charmer element to it, set against high-pitched, rapidly repeating unison string riffs.

The middle movement saw both oboe and strings exploring the timbral possibilities of their upper ranges, separately as equal protagonists and in combination, until everything heads downwards in a serrated glissandi to end abruptly.

The most interesting section of the twenty-minute piece was its third movement finale, where the soloist switches to English horn and explores that instrument’s lower register while the strings go from ambient clusters to pizzicato accompaniment in counterpoint. Keeley’s concerto revealed itself as chromatic yet tonally centered, and was wonderfully played by Andy Nogal.

Given that György Ligeti was an influence on aspects of the Keeley piece, it made sense to follow its premiere with a handful of Ligeti’s Etudes for piano, performed by Amy Briggs.

Briggs took the opening Etude Désordre rather literally and played it in an aggressive and percussive manner as if it were Prokofiev.  This is a tricky piece — nearly impossible to perform with its cross-handed polyrhythms — and Briggs brought off every note discernibly, no small feat, even if the reading craved contemplation and more dynamic contrast within the pulsating voices.

Cordes a vide was given a more subtle treatment, almost like Satie on a crabby day, while Fanfares with its ostinato figure and rollicking riffs was played with reckless, rock-like abandon.

Briggs returned in the second half of the program to perform four of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s six Jubilees, a series that began a decade ago as a 75th birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez and to which Lindberg has added since.

Ironically, for a composer whose atonal early piano works bear a resemblance to Boulez, these are far more pointillistic and ambient than those earlier pieces, and Briggs captured their spirit and structure with aplomb.

Kirsten Broberg’s tinted sky starts with a single low repeated piano note in octaves that is resonantly and gradually picked up by the rest of the ensemble, which includes violin, cello, alternating flute and alto flute and, often, resonating vibraphone alternating with glockenspiel.

Given the fact that diatonic harmony and dynamics are gradually filled in, the titular reference would appear to be a sunrise, but perhaps a spring cloudburst is more apt?  The notes did not specify, nor did the music.

The neo-Minimalist sound world is somewhere between Arvo Pärt and New Age ambient music, exploring the timbral possibilities of the ensemble while violinist J. Austin Wulliman impressively delved into the upper partials of his instrument with harmony slowly, sometimes more rapidly, shifting behind him.

The last piece on the program also presented the best performance of the evening. Northwestern University professor Lee Hyla’s Pre-Pulse Suspended is a 1984 tour de force for chamber orchestra. It starts as an aggressive duel between violin and bass clarinet and expands until a brawl breaks out across the ensemble, culminating in a remarkably powerful build-up of texture, timbre and dynamics.

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