A bracing mix after a baffling start at Impromptu Fest

Fri Mar 29, 2019 at 2:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jennifer Presar performed Kathleen Ginther’s “Respiro” Thursday night at Impromptu Fest. Photo: Amy Wurtz

Spoken introductions to musical performances can be redundant, long-winded and even dull. But they often serve a useful purpose—especially at new music concerts where information is scant or nonexistent about the works being presented. 

Such was the case at the Impromptu Fest concert Thursday night at Guarneri Hall where the lack of information and even pauses between the first works made for a somewhat baffling start to the evening.

Composer William Jason Raynovich was already performing on his electric cello 15 minutes before the start of the concert (making some concertgoers wonder if they had misjudged the curtain time). As the extended solo playing with electronics continued, it became clear that this was the evening’s first selection, Raynovich’s aptly named now (ongoing). 

A work in progress for four years, now presents some undeniably arresting sounds and timbral combinations between Raynovich’s plugged-in live playing and the ambient electronic soundscape. Raynovich’s solo playing continued for nearly a half-hour without pause. As he played a high cantilena one wondered if he had segued attacca into the second selection, Carolynn Chen’s rara avis. Following more long phrases and the cellist exhaling in long breaths the music grew more vigorous, albeit with increasingly gamey intonation and stridency that became painful as the long, scratchy cello solo went on interminably.

Mercifully, composer Seth Boustead rose from his seat in the audience at one point and took his place at the piano signaling the beginning of his set of four short pieces (augmented from the printed program) for piano, cello and violin. 

Whitespace combines high spare piano phrases against more emphatic cello statements; the searching expression continues in Contemplation No. 23. The ensuing Loud and Fast! is self-explanatory and offered welcome insistent drive, Boustead’s set closing with a tense, uneasy peace in Calm, with Waves. Raynovich’s hoary cello was not on the same level as the more polished work of Boustead and violinist Drew Williams. Despite the uneven advocacy there is enough foundational material here for a compelling piano trio and Boustead should think about expanding these pieces into a larger-scale work.

With a variety of instruments and electronics, the second half of the evening provided a bracing acoustical test drive for the new hall, which emerged with flying colors—all elements emerging with striking color, depth and presence in the intimate space.

Elizabeth J. Start’s Assisi Impressions offered a quaint and picturesque three-movement suite inspired by an Italian trip, given capable advocacy by flutist Caroline Pittman and the cellist composer.

Pittman was heard to better advantage in Timothy Dwight Edwards’ Houses of Cards for alto flute. This extended solo proved uncommonly compelling, skillfully written and given eloquent advocacy by Pittman. 

Guitarist Timothy Ernest Johnson was heard in three works. One suspects that Lawrence Axelrod’s Mandala —his first work of many for solo guitar—has more concentration and merit than it received from Johnson’s rather halting performance. The guitarist was a better advocate for his own Tango Terceira, a sunny and charming reminiscence of his time in the Azore Islands. Less successful was Kyong Mee Choi’s It only needs to be seen, an incoherent mashup of live guitar with electronic squeaks, squawks and crashes.

Kathleen Ginther’s Respiro for French horn and electronics proved the highlight of the evening. Beginning with the soloist making breathing sounds into the instrument, the live horn part is set against horn-like electronic backing in a kind of sonic pas de deux. The live horn phrases grow louder and more imposing backed by the sentinel-like cascading electronics.

Jennifer Presar’s performance was mesmerizing, as she handled all the technical demands of the score with seamless ease, phrasing expressively and even speaking the quiet, repeated iterations of “Respiro” in perfectly accented Italian in the hushed final section.

Impromptu Fest continues at Guarneri Hall through Sunday, March 31. At 3 p.m. Sunday Crossing Borders presents a program of African-American women composers. impromptufest.org

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