On Monday night, contemporary chamber group Continuum presented an internationally themed concert on the CenterStage in the ’62 Center. Heralded for its radical programming and polished, energetic performances, Continuum is a New York-based group founded by two pianists, Joel Sachs, who teaches at Julliard, and Cheryl Seltzer in 1966. The program featured almost exclusively living composers from Europe, the Americas and the Middle East, working with both the cultural and musical heritages of those countries and homes.
The first piece of the concert, Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s “Music for Piano,” excellently demonstrated the kinds of musical hybrids the program was keen to explore. A glass bead was placed inside the piano, resting on the strings, which bounced and vibrated when keys were played, creating a tinny, twangy sound that the composer claims simulates the sound of traditional Azerbaijani instruments.
The second composer featured was Conlon Nancarrow, an American who has spent most of his life in Mexico creating densely intricate works for self-playing (player) pianos. Radical and one-of-a-kind, Nancarrow is rarely heard in concert halls – most of his output is simply impossible for humans to play. The co-directors of the group played four of his earlier piano works, which combine bits of blues, ragtime, stride piano and elegant canonic structures to create music that sounds like no other composer. Study No. 15, originally for player piano and exquisitely executed by the two pianists on Monday, is a two-voice canon written in the rhythmic ratio of 4:3. While it is possible to listen to that structural design unfold in the piece, it is also possible just to enjoy the hallucinatory jumble of swirling lines Nancarrow writes. Sachs and Seltzer played his works with a wonderful buoyancy and clarity: Having only heard player piano realizations of Nancarrow’s work prior to the concert, the life and vitality injected in this music was a joy to hear.
Another highlight was Associate Professor of Music Ileana Perez-Velazquez’s lush, huskily beautiful three-movement work for soprano, violin, cello, clarinet and piano. Written specifically for this concert and featuring three poems by Carlos Pintado, the first movement opened with a suspended cello note and quiet, low clarinet trills bubbling up out of silence. Perez-Velazquez slowly built up her tender, yearning lines to reveal a wide-open space of sound, giving her notes enough room to resonate with the listener. The movement closed with a return to the clarinet trills, a motive that unified the entire work, and a delicate soprano note sung quietly, while a low piano note tolled like a faraway bell.
The second movement was more active but kept the same yearning, nostalgic tone of the first. Increased motion and dissonance upped the drama, but it was still Perez-Velaquez’s small, carefully calibrated gestures that resonated most. Towards the end of the movement, sustained violin and cello chords shifted slowly and hung in the air while the piano dropped its chords to lower registers. The final movement felt more playful and bouncy than the previous two, introducing tempestuous, climbing figures that built into powerful climaxes. While the greater rhythmic and dynamic activity felt a bit out of place with the other movements, as a whole the piece was unquestionably one of the highlights of the program.
After a pair of solo works, one by cellist Christopher Gross and another by clarinetist Moran Katz, whose crystal-clear tones and agile precision were nothing short of a revelation, the ensemble played Tajikistani composer Benjamin Yusupov’s “Haqqoni.” “Haqqoni” used taped bits of vocal Bukharian music, including clips of both of the composer’s grandfathers, to set the stage for a spacious and ominous aura. More so than the other works, this one relied on creating long atmospheric sections built with careful textures, some fantastically original and evocative. However, the piece relied too much on the taped singing, both structurally and thematically. I found myself more interested in the haunting timbres of the voices than in some of the instrumental colors, and as a whole the work felt overlong.
The final piece on the program, Francis Schwartz’s “Daimon II,” was the most unconventional and in many ways the most exciting. Schwartz’s score calls for the players to exhale loudly, to stomp their feet in a jumbled, primitive dance and to shout and moan. Structurally, the design was simple: The conductor, co-director Sachs, brought in each instrument one at a time, playing repetitive cells of agitated material. Once all the instruments were in, the players began shouting, exhaling or dancing. After the players began this extra-musical material, Sachs turned to the audience and, with delightfully intense motions, demanded the audience to partake in the same activity. The piece took on the quality of a group ritual, allowing the audience – normally told to be quiet and sit still – to join the performers in making noise. It felt both primeval and sophisticated, and for that reason provided an outstanding capstone to a concert of musical hybrids.