Ned Rorem’s 90th birthday observed in style at Northwestern

Sat Oct 12, 2013 at 4:21 pm

By Gerald Fisher

A program of Ned Rorem's music was performed Friday night at Pick-Staiger Hall.
A program of Ned Rorem’s music was performed Friday night at Pick-Staiger Hall.

A program of surprising pleasures closed the micro-festival of music by Northwestern alum Ned Rorem at Friday evening’s concert in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The series was presented by the Institute for New Music at the Bienen School of Music.

The composer will turn 90 later this month and was prevented by health considerations from attending the two-day tribute. The audience was sparse, but the performances were consistently first-rate.

Friday’s concert featured instrumental works by a composer known chiefly for his vocal repertoire and demonstrated beautifully how important the lyric line is in all his music whether the voice is involved or not.

The program began with Solemn Prelude (1973), a brief but sonorous work for brass which was no more than an extended fanfare but quite an effective opener. Mallory Thompson conducted the brass of the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble.

After the wind ensemble, the remainder of the first half of the program consisted of solo outings for flute, trumpet and saxophone.

Four Prayers, a 2006 work for flute and piano, is an enigmatic composition. The First Prayer is marked “without expression” but as played by flutist John Thorne, sounded like a vaguely exotic lament with the flute’s silvery line singing above a simple progression of chords in the piano. The Second begins quietly and lyrically but erupts into dynamic extremes from a shrill flute with an impressive piano accompaniment by James Giles who covered the whole keyboard.

The Third Prayer is labeled by the composer a palindrome (technically a phrase that reads both backward and forward like “Madam I’m Adam”) and the movement is an illustration of Rorem’s technical prowess and sense of humor. The last Prayer, in contrast, is a beautiful melodic pastoral, ending in a quiet good-night.

Cries and Whispers, from 2000, a work for trumpet and piano, is a real showpiece for the trumpet, beginning at an overpowering forte and winding down to a muted diminuendo conclusion. The work is challenging for instrumentalists, but the trumpeter, Robert Sullivan, and pianist Kathryn Goodson found common ground and executed the long melodic stretches in the first part as well as the shorter fragments and dramatic pauses of the latter half with finesse.

Picnic on the Marne (1984) is from the middle period of the composer’s long career and is a sequence of 7 highly contrasting waltzes for alto saxophone and piano portraying events on a road trip made some 28 years earlier, in 1956. The saxophonist Timothy McAllister with pianist Goodson started strongly in “Driving from Paris,” Rorem’s fierce version of a fast car. The artists captured superbly the varied moods of the work, waxing romantic in the melodic “Bend in the River” and, progressively more intoxicated, building up to a fight (“A Tense Discussion”) between saxophone and piano in an aggressive dialogue which is patched up playfully and concludes slowly and resonantly in “The Road back to Town.”

The second half of the program offered the most substantial music of the short evening. Rorem’s first finished work after the death of his life partner, Nine Episodes for Four Players from 2001 is a collection of pieces of varying length, mood and style. It was performed by the Chicago-based Civitas Ensemble, at this performance: Yuan-Qing Yu, violinist, J. Lawrie Bloom clarinetist, Karen Basrak, cellist and Winston Choi, pianist.

The first eight episodes were characteristically eclectic and episodic, opening briskly in “Hide and Seek” and offering opportunities in “One Answer to Four Questions” for the soloists to stretch out romantically and with tonal richness. Subsequent short movements offered melodic interludes of great beauty and humor, and included a short solo turn by the pianist, Winston Choi, who was supportive and authoritative throughout the work.

The final Episode, “Closing Pages,” seemed almost a separate work, and was deeply moving and beautifully executed. Beginning abstractedly with violin flashes over cello and clarinet it slowly moves forward with the clarinet offering finality under the violin’s protests and the piano an inexorable trek of time in endless repetition of a single note. The high tone in the violin at the conclusion is a perfect ending to this highly emotive piece and was rendered immaculately by Yuan-Qing Yu.

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