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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010

Present Music’s Phillip Bush Steps Down on a High Note

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Present Music (PM) has settled into Turner Hall Ballroom, the idiosyncratic Downtown landmark. Saturday night’s concert, which launched a new season, marked the last appearance of retiring pianist Phillip Bush, a longtime ensemble member.

The Piano Concerto by Gyrgy Ligeti, with the largest PM chamber orchestra ever assembled, is very difficult music, for both soloist and ensemble. The composer creates a concentrated, complex labyrinth of intricate rhythms and textures, explored in five movements with deep chiaroscuro contrasts. It’s fascinating; I wanted to hear it again immediately. Bush, dazzling in many flashier pieces over the last 15 years, delivered a high-minded swan song that stressed not solo work but something more elusive: evolved and interactive relationships with other musicians. After all, ensemble playing of the highest order is the essential element of Present Music.

Music by Gabriel Prokofiev (b. 1975), the grandson of Sergei Prokofiev, was first heard in Milwaukee in a June PM performance at the Wherehouse. As was true then, three selected movements from string quartets were played. (I don’t recall if they were the same movements.) Prokofiev shows a kinship with strings and an attractive, light touch as a composer. He often (maybe too often) mixes the texture of one or two instruments playing pizzicato while other instruments play bowed, sustained sounds.

Prokofiev, a Londoner who was present for the concert, was again featured in Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra. I suppose this idea was inevitable. Jordan “DJ Madhatter” Lee was the soloist. Some of the turntable’s licks were straight out of hip-hop; others more interestingly manipulated recorded orchestral sounds. There were even cadenzas. The music was most interesting when it had a jazz or rock bent and a lighter spirit. Prokofiev is a master at creating an extreme slow-motion rock beat. Five movements was a little long, however. The weaker stretches are self-consciously serious.

I noticed that many in the audience laughed at various times at the turntable/chamber orchestra combination, which begged the question: Is this inescapably a novelty piece? Would Prokofiev better succeed with a shorter, wittier piece for turntable and orchestra, along the lines of Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter”?