Thursday afternoon’s fourth and final Music in Time program took the series out in (mostly) gripping dramatic style at the Simons Center Recital Hall. As series host John Kennedy told us beforehand, each of the program’s three works had a story to tell. And two of them did so in particularly vivid, almost theatrical manner.

The program kicked off with a most impressive, slam-bang piece by emerging British composer Tansy Davies, presented here in its American premiere performance. Her Grind Show (unplugged) began in a fairly subdued manner, but quickly turned aggressive with driving rhythms and sharp, percussive, near-violent musical “stabs.” It made a lot of noise for a chamber work. Indeed, Andrea Jarrett’s violin, Alexandra Thompson’s cello, Emma Gerstein’s alto flute, and Jack Marquardt’s bass clarinet (all from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra), with Bénédicte Jourdois at the partially prepared piano (or so it sounded), gave the piece their intense all, keeping their listeners on the edge of their seats. For a change, the piece was deftly conducted by Alexander Kahn, whose work in the Intermezzi opener I’ve written about. Davies is definitely a composer to watch for in the future. I’m now officially on the prowl for more of her music.

The following number, Island in Time, was by Kennedy himself, and it told a much gentler story. As he explained to us upfront, he wrote it as a tribute to dear departed avant-garde guru John Cage, whom Kennedy honored in Spoleto’s recent Orchestra Uncaged concert with one of the old master’s most substantial works. (BTW, this is the hundredth anniversary year of his birth.) As in that massive work, Kennedy used some similar “time management” techniques, like writing it in such a way as to free his musicians from the “rhythmic tyranny” of the bar lines and common meters that have “imprisoned” composers for centuries. That’s what Kennedy meant when he titled that big concert “Orchestra Uncaged.” Besides being a cunning word play on his name, it signified that it was Cage who first liberated modern music from such rhythmic strictures.

Accordingly, Kennedy gave his various players different time signatures here (to be played simultaneously), as well as some degree of freedom in the delivery of their parts. The result was what he called  “free pulse,” as opposed to the “common pulse” of most music. The net effect was something like that of Cage’s big work, in which the music often seemed to flow aimlessly, fostering a meditative, even spiritual atmosphere. His compositional design further made for repeated “islands” of silence in his mostly peaceful sea of sound, hence the work’s title. But Kennedy’s melodic and harmonic methods were somewhat less chaotic than Cage’s, such that the listener didn’t experience quite the same level of “harmonic anarchy.” Scored for cello, alto flute, bass clarinet and percussion, the players were the same as in the program’s opening work; the only newcomer was terrific SFO percussionist Ryder Shelley.    

We musn’t forget that Kennedy is not only a dynamite conductor and leading new music champion, but a really terrific composer as well. Please, sir, can we have some more?

But it was the program’s final number that just about physically blew the concert’s disappointingly sparse audience out of the hall. Drama, Op. 23, by Guo Wenjing (the composer of this year’s Chinese opera, Feng Yi Ting), is a truly fantastic, high-energy six-section composition for three percussionists, each playing a single pair of Chinese opera cymbals, each pair of a different size. Shelley returned to the stage for this one, along with his two SFO colleagues, Sidney Hobson and George Nickson. And you wouldn’t believe the sheer volume, intensity and variety of sound that three small cymbal-sets can produce (the biggest looked to be about eight inches across).

I won’t even attempt to catalog the huge range of sounds an effects these busy gentlemen and their cymbals produced over the piece’s 30-minute course; you simply had to have been there. But let me cover the basics. To begin, even cymbals can produce different, though limited pitches (mostly microtonal ones), produced by different damping techniques or by shaking the cymbals. But, while the limited pitch range precluded any kind of melodic structure, it (and copious overtones) added immeasurably to the piece’s overall sonic content and interest. The dynamic range was tremendous, from nearly inaudible little clicks to loud, high-pitched gong effects. Sound-producing techniques (among others) included striking them with various sticks and mallets, rubbing the cymbals together, striking the instrumental platforms with them, clicking them rapidly back to back, etc. The players also served as vocalists, punctuating the percussive din with little puppy-like yips, louder “ooooh’s” and “aaaah’s,” sharp shouts of “Hai!” and swooping vocal glissandos. There was also some tongue-clicking, foot-stomping, and whistling. The rhythmic patterns were often quite intricate, ranging from gentle forward motion to pile-driving violence. Our players were clearly exhausted after it was all over — but you just knew they had truly had a total ball. I’ve rarely seen bigger grins from musicians.

This was musical drama at its eclectic and memorable best. The small crowd made up for their limited numbers with a monster ovation afterwards, screaming and shouting. If you weren’t there, I’m sorry.          

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