Kennedy's musical fingerprints found at Grace Church

Fairly Modern Fare

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One of recently appointed Spoleto resident conductor John Kennedy’s apparent new duties is to come up with interesting (and challenging) programs for special events and established festival series (other than his own Music in Time). And that’s just what he did at Monday’s memorable Intermezzi III program at Grace Church. Featured were the accessible and appealing works of three highly worthwhile and important 20th century composers: Silvestre Revueltas, György Ligeti, and Leoš Janàçek

Revueltas — often called the “Mexican Stravinsky” — was one of those tortured geniuses who drank himself to death by age 40. And he’s one of my favorite composers of the century past. Long neglected, his vital and often fearfully intense music seems to have made something of a comeback over the past decade or so. Given his music’s often manically spiky rhythmic drive and astringent harmonies, the Stravinsky comparison is apt — but he’s a true child of his nation, and an important part of the fine old Latin American orchestral tradition.

His Ocho por Radio (eight for radio) is just that: a catchy chamber piece for exactly eight instrumentalists that was written specifically for radio broadcast. Its pervasive “village mariachi band” flavor jumps right out at you, but he doctors up the idiomatic impression with colorful harmonies and almost perversely syncopated rhythmic patterns, to striking effect. It doesn’t take long before most sensitive listeners realized that a remarkable musical mind was at work here. Kennedy and company (all members of the fabulous Spoleto Festival Orchestra) delivered a delightfully perky and near-flawless performance.

Ligeti is better-known than most people think. His cosmically evocative “space music” makes up much of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey,. And similar sounds were heard in this concert — in the form of the short, two-movement Cello Concerto — written at about the same time (1967) that 2001 was being made.

As Kennedy told us beforehand, the music is built mostly on sustained tones that gradually overlap and entwine to produce spacious and shimmering celestial effects. Such effects tend to resonate pleasantly in most listeners’ ears, even those who don’t much like modern composers. He added that we should listen for music of colors and textures rather than of melody. And his intro must’ve helped, because the crowd — even with its high percentage of older folks — seemed to enjoy it, if their hearty applause afterwards meant anything.

Kennedy had also told us that such music as this requires exception control from its performers — a quality that was readily apparent from our gifted SFO musicians. Cellist Madeleine Kabat negotiated her tricky solo part expertly and with interpretive oomph. Insider’s tip: be at Thursday’s Music in Time program to hear her have her way with Kaija Saariaho’s remarkable Seven Butterflies for solo cello. As Kennedy told us, “She has a wonderful way with new music.”

The final work was Martin Bresnick’s transcription for chamber orchestra of Janacek's ten-piece piano cycle entitled On an Overgrown Path. Roughly a century old, these mostly romantic and evocative pieces are very different from his more jagged, in-your-face works like the Sinfonietta or the Glagolitic Mass. This is highly intimate and personal material: a kind of autobiographical musical memory bank, depicting episodes of intense, imagery-ridden nostalgia associated with special slices of life from his childhood onward.

His hallmark rhythmic style — based on Czech speech-patterns — is still in evidence, but many who don’t know this music would be surprised to learn that it comes from Jana├žek. It was no surprise that the SFO orchestra responded beautifully to Kennedy’s guidance and produced glowing accounts that touched their audience’s hearts, and deeply.

Mr. Kennedy, you can bring us music like this anytime, and I’ll be there with bells on.

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