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Monday, Feb. 23, 2009

Uncharted Venue

Classical Review

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Present Music continued its exploration of untried classical concert venues last Saturday evening at Discovery World's Pilot House. A lovely space, with a panoramic view of the lake and shore, the carpeted room has little natural resonance. This did not matter much since the entire concert was amplified. Attendees also had the chance to tour museum exhibits before and after the concert, with a few music installations scattered about.

Ryan Carter, a 28-year-old composer from Wisconsin, had a premiere, 20 (or so) Variations, for clarinet, cello, piano and recorded sound. This was more successful than his choral piece premiered by Present Music last season. Carter has a contemporary feel for interesting, driving textures and counterpoint. The most appealing sections were those where the concepts were most clear and extended: a slow, angular piano theme answered by long, falling sighs on clarinet and cello; and compelling, fiendishly difficult piano solos, performed impressively by Cory Smythe. At its best the instruments interacted with explicit rhythm to recorded sounds; at times the music sounded cluttered with too many ideas.

The four-movement Machines (2006) by Marc Mellits, for seven instruments, was a chance for the tight, incisive ensemble playing that is a Present Music trademark. The music is minimalism on steroids, its layers interacting intricately. It was terrific, but I was bothered by not being able to hear the piano in the mix.

Ingram Marshall's Fog Tropes II (1993) is for string quartet and recorded sounds of San Francisco bay. The low fog horns became a sort of bass note for this attractive, rather melancholy and slow moving soundscape-landscape-seascape. Viola is not often encountered as a solo instrument. Brek Renzelman made the most of the opportunity in Nico Muhly's Keep in Touch (2005), with recorded sound.