by John Stoehr
John Kennedy has good taste. He has to, as the curator of the Music in Time. That's a Spoleto series devoted to contemporary music. Kennedy isn't afraid of big thorny modernist composers like, say, Milton Babbitt. He offered five hours of Morton Feldman last year and more than a handful of listeners stuck around.
Yet he has a measure of restraint that's reasonable for a guy who doesn't want to send people screaming from his recital hall. So he programs music that tests our sensibilities without resulting in allergy flare-up. Case in point are the two composers showcased Saturday: Gavin Bryars and Julia Wolfe.
From my notebook:
Gavin Bryars' The Bulls of Bashan: Dreamy, rhythmic violin solo with small string orchestra accompaniment conducted by Kennedy. You can tell some of these players are students, but still, it's nice. The highlight is the violin soloist, Heather Wittels. Her sounds is rich and creamy. Music has big open sonorities. It feels like Copland's mountain vistas. Or maybe the sound of an Ansel Adams photograph. It moves slowly but with a steady pulse. A bit moody, as if tension rippled beneath a calm veneer. The piece is too naked for careless intonation from the string back-up.
Julia Wolfe's Cruel Sister: Based on a Scottish story about two sisters courted by the same man. He chooses and the other becomes cruel and seeks revenge. The sisters take a walk by the seaside. The chosen one is pushed over the cliff. The only option left, the cruel sister is asked for her hand in marriage by what can only be called a fickle suitor. Later, a minstrel discovers the chosen sister's body, which has washed ashore. He makes a harp from her bones and plays at the cruel sister's wedding.
This happy story was on your mind throughout: Cruel Sister is clearly influenced by minimalism, which is to say its foundation is pulse. It waits while pieces of rhythm fall into place before moving on. And this can take quite a while. The harmonic range is extremely narrow and defined by the repeated pattern in the lower strings. This pedal tone, as it were, varies only occasionally and when it does change, it pops at you, like a beam of sunlight peaking through a window shade. How long it took for each player to exchange a similar pattern felt rather indulgent at first, but it made sense as the piece went on. In time, minority textures emerged from the majority — bow strokes gave way to a plucking that itself gave way to strumming (with violins played like small guitars), which was in turn replaced by dramatic glissandi in the upper strings. Each time the minority textures burst out of the majority. Cruel Sister is like a satisfying experiment in texture and volume, a perfect piece for the radio show Echoes. -JS