Piano wire and Sopranos

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Leaving Sekou Sundiata’s show led the Lowbrow to innards of a different kind on Monday. Music in Time series coordinator John Kennedy’s got a lot on his plate this year – herding the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and conducting them in one of the big operas, Faustus, The Last Night, at the Sottile – so he’s not as involved this season in the adventurous new music program for which he’s best known. But he was there at Recital Hall yesterday to introduce the performers in the first concert, which, for all its modest size, seemed one of the most buzzed-about parts of the fest. The Bowed Piano Ensemble removed the lid from a piano, exposing its wood-and-wire guts. Ignoring the keys altogether, the 10-member team, led by composer Stephen Scott of Colorado College, surrounds the open instrument and reaches in, coaxing otherworldly sounds of its entrails with lengths of monofilament, felt hammers, and their own fingers and knuckles.

Saturday’s concert was nearly full, and there were as many young faces as not (Music in Time is a regular fave of Spoleto Festival orchestra musicians, who get free seats to festival gigs if any remain unsold by showtime). The piano was mounted with two cameras, and another provided a bird’s eye view from directly overhead. Once the group started up, they looked like surgeons operating on a great black beast in an ICU, while video of what was going on inside appeared on the back wall. The scene within the piano looked like an explosion in a dental floss factory. The musicians scurried around the piano, occasionally switching places with one another, somehow producing ethereally unpiano-ish sounds from the instrument.

The first work, “New York Drones,” was short and sublime. The hour-long second work, “The Deep Spaces,” seemed to overreach. It made use of a soproano accompaniest, who sang letters and poetry from the likes of Wordsworth and Byron. But the sung music (all themes on Italy’s Lake Como, apparently) was incongruous and distracting, and after the seventh or so variation, audiences members began shifting in their seats and looking at their watches. A festival musician behind me threw discretion to the wind and settled in for some shuteye, sawing logs loud enough to be heard on stage, I’m sure. You can’t blame the guy, considering the SFO’s work schedule during the festival. Give a listen and see if you don’t find your own Deep Spaces.

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