Turner Hall Suits Present Music’s ‘Gnarly Buttons’
John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons for clarinet and chamber orchestra was Present Music at its very best. As soloist, Bill Helmers displayed why he has been a valued musician on the contemporary scene for so many years. He played with strong, tight rhythm necessary in this style, aggressive when called for, and tender tone in the nostalgic third movement. Four of the 10 movements for string quartet and recording from Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances were performed so well they whetted the appetite for more.
Twenty-eight-year-old Gabriel Kahane combines the sensibilities of a popular singer-songwriter with a contemporary chamber music composer. His style echoes artists from James Taylor to Rufus Wainwright. His art songs specifically bring to mind the work of theater composer/singer Adam Guettel, particularly Guettel’s Myths and Hymns. Kahane has a captivating tenor voice, easily moving from casual, popular tone to classical singing. He is accomplished on banjo and piano as accompaniment. His music, both popular songs and art music, is very attractive. A composer can learn techniques, but very few have the natural gift of setting words to music. Kahane certainly has it.
His concept for the long song cycle For the Union Dead is questionable. Kahane's music promises emotion but never delivers it. Robert Lowell’s poetry requires reflective and repeated reading for comprehension. Dense and abstract wordy poems are simply incomprehensible in art song settings, even reading along. Before the performance Kahane made an impassioned speech about Robert Gould Shaw, a white civil war colonel who fell in battle leading an all-black regiment. The audience was then confused by six songs that had nothing to do with that theme before a setting of the title poem.