With Spoleto 2014 now reaching its end, it’s time to catch you up on the smaller-scale classical events of the festival’s regular series. I caught three such concerts over last weekend: two outings of the ever-adventurous Music in Time (MIT) series, and one spiffy chamber event.

Let’s begin with last Friday’s MIT II concert, held, as usual, at the College of Charleston’s Simons Center Recital Hall. You may recall from my review of the series opener the advice I got from director John Kennedy that, of MIT’s four events, this was the one not to miss. It offered a single extended work by notable Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen entitled Schnee (German for snow), skillfully delivered by an ensemble of nine instrumentalists drawn from the formidable Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
We heard 10 varied “Canon” movements, with three short “Intermezzo” passages scattered in between. As the first few movements unfolded, I struggled to follow the pieces’ contrapuntal canonic structures. But the music’s lack of discernible tonic references made this nearly impossible, even for a musician like me. So I soon gave up on trying to analyze what was going on, sat back, and let it all simply wash over me — and that’s when the music’s bleak and icy tonal textures began to speak to me.

Snow? Behind closed eyelids, I “heard” it, and in just about every conceivable way one can experience that wintry phenomenon. My mind’s ear suggested gentle snow flurries, swirling eddies of snowflakes, wind-driven blizzards, and even pristine snow-covered landscapes glistening in the moonlight. I further witnessed frozen cascades of dangling, shattering icicles. Despite Charleston’s summery temps, I felt like I was about to shiver in the sonic cold. It was totally, unforgettably magical. If you weren’t there, I’m sorry.

Saturday’s Chamber series outing at the Dock Street Theatre (program No. 6 of 11) was a fascinating mix of old and not-so-old music. BTW, pardon me for not listing all the musicians in this concert; it would make for yet another paragraph.
The oldest work was a virtuosic partita for strings and continuo by Heinrich von Biber (with a bunch of middle names thrown in). He’s a largely neglected early Baroque master who experimented with “scordatura,” or alternative tuning methods. The piece was an exhilarating suite of perky short dances followed by a longer final movement; the unusual tuning scheme made it sound a little “off” harmonically, but that didn’t keep the crowd from enjoying it thoroughly.

Next up was a pair of lovely art songs by German romantic master Johannes Brahms for alto soloist, viola, and piano that demonstrated the composer’s penchant for warm lower sonorities. Mezzo Charlotte Hellekant’s rich and glowing voice made something truly special of them. On to the 20th Century with Czech master Bohuslav Martinu’s Serenade No. 3 for seven varied instruments that turned out to be quite a saucy and charming piece, full of bouncy good spirits and profuse touches of humor. The crowd loved it.

Bringing the program to a resounding close was a true rarity by 20th-Century English icon Ralph Vaughan Williams: his almost unknown Piano Quintet in C minor, an early work that he withdrew from publication. It turned out that this lush, beautiful, and highly romantic work was very much at odds with the often pastoral, folk-based style that the composer later adopted. From the audience’s reaction, it was obvious that everybody was glad this piece was rediscovered after the Williams’s death.
My weekend odyssey ended with Sunday’s MIT III program, an astonishing array of mostly contemporary works for either mixed percussion or solo piano. Delivering the musical goods were two of the same fabulous artists who made the opening MIT I program memorable, percussionist George Nickson and pianist Conor Hanick.

Nickson wowed the crowd with two real workouts involving arrays of up to about 25 different single-percussion instruments that took up considerable stage space. The first, Nico Muhly’s It’s about Time, offered a smorgasbord of varied sounds based on common harmonies developed in a theme-and-variations format. The second was Janissary Music, a particularly virtuosic number by Charles Wuorinen that was universally declared as “unplayable” when it was created in 1966. But that was before Nickson came along to make the first-ever recording of it nearly half a century after it was written. It was an absolutely spectacular piece, calling for almost as much athletic as musical ability, with Nickson moving almost faster than the eye could follow to get all the notes and mallet-strikes in.

In between, Hanick delivered the world premiere of Whose Fingers Brush the Sky, a brand-new piece (completed just weeks ago) by David Fulmer. With its profuse application of the sustain pedal, the work seemed to be as much about the lingering overtones and resonances between notes as it was about the notes themselves. He later delivered Tristan Murail’s Territoires de l’oubli, in which sonic textures and effects (echoes, musically sympathetic vibrations, etc.) are (again) often more important than the original notes themselves.

Late additions to the program were two pieces (The White-browed Robin and The Polyglot Mockingbird) by the French mystic Olivier Messiaen, much of whose music had to do with birdcalls. In both pieces, striking evocations of varied birdsong are heard, usually amid lingering resonances from various other parts of the keyboard. The second piece was particularly impressive, with what the pianist described as “avian insanity” prevailing. Amazing stuff! 

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