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Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012

Choice Selections Enhance Present Music's 'Choose'

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It must have been a treat for Kevin Stalheim, Present Music's founding artistic director, to nominate a slew of works that excited him and let the audience choose its favorites. “It's power-to-the-people time,” Stalheim declared at the start of “Choose” at Turner Hall Ballroom on Jan. 7, part of the yearlong 30th birthday celebration of this vital company that commissions and performs contemporary music for our city.

Stalheim grouped his nominees according to contrasting moods (gritty, humorous, beautiful and contemplative) and emailed listening samples to subscribers. More than 100 different people voted, many in all categories. Knowing that a good quarter of the audience participated in the program selection added interest and enjoyment to the show.

Aside from the evening's epilogue—a day-glo happening called Souvenir devised by Donald Erb in 1970, which Stalheim revived to emphasize the audience's active role (a painted weather balloon and ping-pong balls descended for the crowd to bat around in black light while 20 musicians improvised from the balconies)—all the selections belong to the 21st century. The composers are young, much awarded and well educated, and most work for universities. Their compositions challenge musicians and excite listeners. The works are well constructed, dense, wide ranging and always changing, presenting rhythms and sounds and textures that simply don't appear in older music and certainly not in pop. They stimulate the brain, move us and teach us to listen.

The 12 musicians under Stalheim's conducting played with uniform brilliance. The winning composers seemed to love the cello in particular, so it was a great night for Adrien Zitoun on that astonishingly flexible instrument. The piano parts, performed by Cory Smythe, also stood out.

Primula Vulgaris
(2000), a dissonant, ultimately ferocious string quartet by Anna Clyne, opened the show and drew cheers for the players. +ou- (Plus ou Moins) (2008) by Daniel Wohl, the “contemplative” winner, had cello, piano, clarinet and xylophone play against an abstract recorded soundscape, watery and somehow French. Matthew Hindson's Comin' Right Atcha (2002) riffed wonderfully on James Brown funk. It cooked. It would make a great dance score. Caroline Mallonée's Throwing Mountains (2003) built rhythmically and then went crazy. The Night Jaunt (2006) by Timothy Andres, the “beautiful” winner, felt rife with danger. Menace (Sousa Medley) (2011) by Nick Brooke played with Sousa tunes, context and culture in ways both hilarious and sad.