Symph Winds captures dissonant motion

From ice chunks falling out of thin air to “treadmilling” music that ends exactly where it started, Symphonic Winds and the Opus Zero Band, directed by Steven Bodner, presented an eclectic variety of works at their concert last Friday evening in Chapin Hall. Titled “Rising/Falling” after its theme, the concert encompassed contemporary works either written or significantly revised within the last 10 years – all chosen specifically to highlight unexpectedly unique or sentimental interpretations of the idea “motion.”

Bodner opened with David Lang’s “Short Fall,” the third movement from his suite Child (2000). His work encompassed a short range of notes played in the abrupt staccato form, sounding as if a child was experimenting with a xylophone. Violinist Noah Fields ’11, cellist David Kealhofer ’13 and Annie Jeong ’14 on the piccolo remained in constant unison, while pianist Laone Thekiso ’12 performed in rhythmic opposition; their rapidly paced off-kilter rhythms had the effect of throwing the listeners off balance. In a sense, the disconcerting rhythmic nature of the piece distracted from the limited range of pitch in order to draw attention to the overall effect of rising and falling tonalities.

Following “Short Fall” was a composition from recent alumnus Brian Simalchik ’10, “Like a Man” (2010). In his accompanying notes, Simalchik writes that his piece was inspired by a quote from the well-known composer Charles Ives: After listening to a music critic complaining about a dissonant piece, Ives supposedly said, “Why don’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man!” Performed by Opus Zero, “Like a Man” juxtaposed accented, dissonant chords against the soft tapping of a reverberating cymbal, played by Nina Piazza ’12. The resonating ring of handbells, harmonics of the violins and muted saxophones contributed a wistful, but dynamically powerful, feel to their dissonance, while the fluctuation between quiet tapping and sudden crescendos fueled the sensation of movement.

A transitory interlude took place before the larger Symphonic Winds ensemble appeared on stage to perform James Mobberley’s revised Ascension (1988/2010), a work of eerie wind passages that slowly culminated in an impressive show of strength. Opus Zero then returned with two brief movements from Bruno Mantovani’s Le Sette Chiese (2002), of which the first (L’église de Saint-Jean Baptiste) was rife with drawn-out chromatic dissonance. A selection from Armando Bayolo’s Fanfares (2004), conducted by Chaz Lee ’11, was the final work before intermission; the two lighthearted movements, Für Elise and Treadmill (a work that, in Bayolo’s words, depicts “going nowhere fast,”) provided a brief respite before the heavier works to come.

Opus Zero, conducted by Fields, began the second half with another piece written by Lang, titled “Increase” (2002). In contrast to his “Short Fall” performed earlier, “Increase” involved a significantly larger number of players whose sounds echoed around Chapin, creating a symphonic effect. Beginning with a carefree exchange between a harpsicord-like synthesizer (Lee) and flute (Nina Oberman ’14), Lang gradually layered heavy bass accents and flowing, lengthy notes from the violins. Out of all the works performed, “Increase” seemed to follow the most “traditional” model, heightening drama through discernable yet powerfully inspirational harmonies.

The focus of the night was Opus Zero’s rendition of excerpts from Katrina Ballads (2007). Written by Chicago-born composer Ted Hearn, Katrina Ballads musically interpreted the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina through the lens of the media. The prologue, “Keeping Its Head Above Water,” opened with a bluesy vocal solo from Aspen Jordan ’11, whose rich and throaty voice sung movingly about a prophetic article (“New Orleans is sinking”) written in The Houston Chronicle four years prior to the hurricane. Opus Zero acted as an emotional backdrop, amplifying Jordan’s words while swinging between the extremes of dangerous lethargy and rabid intensity. French horn and electronic effects took center stage for much of the ominous introduction to the purely instrumental second movement, “When we awoke, it was to that phrase: New Orleans dodged a bullet.” As other instruments joined, the movement took on the upbeat, improvisational mood of jazz until the individual parts began spiraling out of control and eventually dying into a hollow sound. Lee performed a solo in the mournful third movement, “Hardy Jackson: 8.30.05,” echoing Jackson’s haunting words as heard on nationwide television: “My wife, I can’t find her body, she gone.” His expressive voice and soulful delivery brought the media cliché to life, yet the youthful quality in his singing seemed to express only a shadow of the deep pain inherent to the movement.

Derek Charke’s Falling from Cloudless Skies (2009) wrapped up with an environmental theme, an unusual note for any music ensemble. In the program notes, Charke explains that he drew inspiration from megacryometeors, giant (e.g. six-pound) balls of ice that fall from the sky at random and are suspected to be an indicator of global warming. Thus a prerecorded track of cracking ice and a brief recitation about climate change accompanied Symphonic Winds as they forged their way through the pounding bass lines and sweeping upper voices in a radically different tone from the rest of the night. Though it ended the night on a strong note, the unusual and somewhat out-of-place Falling felt as if Bodner took a literal interpretation of the concert’s theme one step too far; perhaps, however, stepping too far was his intention all along.

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