SymphWinds commands an ‘Ecstatic’ premiere

Passages, performed Friday night by the Williams Symphonic Winds and the Opus Zero Band at MASS MoCA, was not a concert – it was a dramatic musical journey.

The unusual program clearly reflected this daring scheme. Culminating with Williams’ composer-in-residence Steven Bryant’s masterpiece, Ecstatic Waters, the program alternatively featured several works by other composers, each with a brief lead-in composed by Bryant and seamlessly tied into the original piece. Entitled “Ecstatic Moments,” these musical phrases foreshadowed the dominating themes of Ecstatic Waters, a closing number that thematically brought the performance full circle.

To begin the night, the Opus Zero Band, a chamber ensemble formed from the Symphonic Winds, played the particularly lyrical “Passeggiata in tram in America e ritorno” (“A Trolley Ride to America and Back”), composed in 1998 by Louis Andriessen, the most influential living Dutch composer. A lone piano melody, played with deliberate delicacy by Brian Simalchik ’10, cut through the heavy air. The innocence of simplicity and clarity became a strong motif throughout the performance, most noticeably in Ecstatic Waters. But Andriessen quickly introduced dissonance, both tonal and rhythmic, between the two central soloists, violinist Stephanie Jensen ’12 and soprano Yanie Fecu ’10. Fecu’s deeply haunting, lyrical and flawlessly controlled singing sharply contrasted with the strongly accented phrasing of the violin.

Following Andriessen was John Adams’ composition “The Perilous Shore” from Gnarly Buttons (1996), a clarinet concerto that the group had previously performed this year at Ephpalooza. Alex Taylor ’10 interpreted the rapidly moving solo with depth and admirable skill, a performance that was brusquely echoed by the strings. It was impossible not to be impressed by the responsiveness of the ensemble, despite the pace and difficult rhythmic patterns that fragmented the work.

The last of the three pieces to be introduced by Bryant, David Lang’s “How to Pray,” here arranged by Symphonic Winds director Steven Bodner, so emphasized the absolute rhythmic control that the solo by cellist Katie Palmer ’10 was overwhelmed. Endless variations of a pulsating three-note phrase washed over the audience as the intended wave metaphor was hammered in by a simultaneous video depicting undulating icebergs. While the ensemble was as equally skilled as the others, the radically different (and somewhat repetitive) nature of this over 10-minutes long piece, compared to the other two, resulted in an impatient attitude from the audience.

“Attach,” the final part of Michel van der Aa’s Preposition trilogy (2000), concluded the first half. A soundtrack, played over two large speakers, began with an erratic metronomic ticking, which the ensemble quickly echoed. A tense concluding passage moved from soundtrack to ensemble, beginning in a phrase reminiscent of the theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and ending in a steady, unceasing pulsing of the strings.

The final composition, Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters (2008), was the unquestionable focus of the night. Electronic sounds (controlled by the composer himself from a nearby laptop) once again integrated with the Symphonic Winds’ performance. While each of its four movements extensively develops its own themes, as a whole, the work unites into a cohesive yet cathartic experience. The first movement, “Ceremony of Innocence,” was led by a duet between Simalchik on celesta and Nina Piazza ’12 on vibraphone, bringing back memories of “Passegiata” but far surpassing it as the full symphony pushed the music into a wild crescendo before dying away. A simple humming sound arose from this silence as the second movement (“Augers”) began a second crescendo, this time completely out of control, before bursting into the percussion-fueled rage of the third movement (“The Generous Wrath of Simple Men”). Its passion was resolved in “The Loving Machinery of Justice” as the clarinets and oboes reiterated earlier melodies, alternating between harmony and dissonance. The epilogue (“Spiritus Mundi”) afforded a brief interlude of electronic plucking before blowing the audience away with a final “wow” moment in which Bryant revealed the full strength of the symphony. The audience members held onto their chairs as the floor shook from the piece’s immense power before entering a meditative resolution. A quiet flute carried the melody away before the bass and horns died into a heavy silence.

Such music is not intended for the average listener. Only with intense concentration can the audience hear past the surface dissonance and realize the rhythmic patterns and subtle harmonies. But if you’re up for the challenge, the modern works performed in Passages will reward you with an entirely new perspective on what music is and what it can be.