Saturday afternoon’s very well-attended opening concert of the Music in Time series — entitled “Endangered Natures” — featured a choice array of contemporary musical “cherries,” including two original compositions by the series director and host, John Kennedy (also newly-named Spoleto Resident Conductor). But before I dig into his evocative creations, let me cover the other two composers we heard from.
Argentinian composer-extraordinaire Osvaldo Golijov is everywhere! That is, everywhere his works are being performed in Spoleto’s 2011 edition. I heard his music yesterday at Dock Street, and today at the College of Charleston’s Simons Center Recital Hall: the MIT series’ home base. His ZZ’s Dream, for chamber orchestra, is a deliciously affecting work that depicts in music the verses of Chinese poet Zhuang Zhou describing his joyous dream of being a butterfly — but, upon awakening, he is left wondering “whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.” But instead of the “fluttery” effects you might expect, the music was full of lovely solo melodies drifting over a shifting bed of instrumental textures. Lovely stuff! And I’ll get to hear it again tomorrow at the chamber series, but in its other version for piano solo.
Just before that, we heard a work from vastly underrated American composer Ingram Marshall, whom Kennedy called “the forgotten minimalist.” His A Peaceable Kingdom is a serene and appealing work that employs the sorts of collage effects that American iconoclast Charles Ives (the avant-garde “bad-boy” of his day) pioneered nearly a century ago. It’s written for chamber orchestra superimposed over a pre-recorded soundtrack of street-sounds from Yugoslavia and Italy. The fascination of this music — aside from its slow and richly serene nature — is in the way the music and soundtrack phase in and out of each other, to often eerie, but enchanting effect.
Kennedy’s first offering was a remarkable piano composition called Naturali Periclitati: Latin for “endangered natures,” the program title. Composed for solo piano, the piece evokes a variety of disappearing environments (and the creatures that inhabit them) resulting from overpopulation, global warming and deforestation — as well as the shifting social and technological patterns that are rapidly supplanting more traditional means of human communication and interaction. Doing keyboard honors was the formidable contemporary piano specialist Lydia Brown (a cherished Spoleto regular).
John’s final work — Garden Winds, again for chamber orchestra — was extra-special, at least to Holy City citizens, as it was written in memory of a beloved Charleston personality, Edwin Gardner (who was taken from us in a tragic bicycle accident last summer). A faithful MIT attendee, he and John became good friends over the years (he was also a friend of mine). In my recent interview with John, he described Edwin as “one of the free spirits of the world, and perhaps the most wonderfully curious person I ever knew.” While Kennedy was obviously not far from tears as he introduced the piece to us, his music was not especially mournful. It seemed to portray a gentle, softly windswept garden: an ideal place for the peaceful repose of a sweet, departed soul. Yes, there were moments of sadness and what sounded like quiet keening. Thus Edwin’s spirit — embodied in a true friend’s heartfelt music — lives on in the world he left behind, for the comfort and solace of those who loved him … folks who showed up in droves for this most memorable event.
Oh — and I almost forgot to effusively praise the playing of the chamber orchestra’s members, all from the vaunted Spoleto Festival Orchestra. I wish I could’ve dragged a few of my musically conservative friends, kicking and screaming, to this singularly appealing and accessible concert: folks who think that great music died with the last of the 19th century’s dead white Europeans. With music of such appeal and beauty at hand, I might well have converted them to the wonderful world of contemporary music.