Sounds of the world

Two ear-opening concerts of strings and song.

Is there an instrument that evokes the vernacular less—that lives more completely in the European concert tradition—than the cello? It plays almost no role in jazz or pop; and unlike, say, the violin or oboe, it has no analogue, so far as I know, in any other musical tradition.

Hearing cellist Ted Mook of the new-music ensemble Musicians Accord play two works outside the European mainstream brought home just how ill-traveled the cello is and how underused its sonic possibilities are.


Cornish College of the Arts, September 30

The Esoterics

Pilgrim Congregational Church, October 2

Miriam Gideon drew on the gamelan's colors for her Fantasy on a Javanese Motive. A chiming, gently repetitive piano part underscored the sinuous cello line, a tune such as might be given to a double-reed or a voice in a gamelan piece. Passion Talk is a suite of four movements arranged by Mook and pianist Amy Rubin from pieces by Brazilian jazz composer Egberto Gismonti. These reworkings remind the listener how versatile the cello is—its funky bass backbeats and soaring tunes worked beautifully. Most striking was the third movement, which incorporated lots of misty harmonics in the opening's sparse cello recitative. This was then answered by a shimmering piano ballad, and finished as a moving elegy for both instruments. The pair's third collaboration was by Cornish faculty member Jovino Santos Neto. Once Again for the First Time was a bold and sweeping piece with aggressive fistfuls of Ives-cum-Messiaen chords at the climaxes. (Neto is Musicians Accord's current composer-in-residence and is working on a commission to be premiered by them next February.)

Rubin alone played Libation and Volta Fantasy by Ghanaian composer (and student of Henry Cowell) J.H.K. Nketia. These brief vignettes brought together speechlike rhythms and diatonic, faintly gospel-tinged harmonies. In Rubin's own Latin-rhythmed Cry of the Mothers, she put her lamenting main theme through several transformations; it broke off poignantly, lost in repetitive grooves, and then submerged into the accompaniment.

The other two Musicians Accord members on the program, flutist Gretchen Pusch and percussionist William Trigg, joined for Harvey Sollberger's Sunflowers for flute and vibraphone, a work that drew harsh timbres from what risks being a hypnotizingly pretty combination of instruments. A Dream Revisited by Laura Kaminsky, Musicians Accord director and new chair of Cornish's music department, was one of those pieces that requires the percussionist to dash around a half-stage of instruments, as well as to handle a dozen sticks and mallets with the nimbleness of a gymnast and the delicacy of a surgeon.

The four players came together only for the concert's finale, a tasty suite arranged from five Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tunes. Crossover pieces like these and the Gismonti arrangements do now and then pop up on recital programs, but it was nice to hear them in the context of all sorts of other works and for once not marginalized as the Cute Encore.

There were also borrowings from folk idioms in the vibrant secular choral works of Hungarian composer Lajos BᲤos, whose centennial the Esoterics celebrated with concerts last weekend. His sacred pieces, written with the grudging approval of Communist authorities, tended to be less flamboyant, with melodic lines recalling chant- and hymnlike rhythms and textures. BᲤos died in 1986 after a long and quiet academic life. The choir sang 18 pieces of his, loosely organized by subject—nature, travel, love, religion, music. It was good to be introduced to BᲤos' music, and the Esoterics made me curious to explore his instrumental works.

That this 24-voice a cappella choir sang spectacularly is not news; but the performance space, Capitol Hill's newly renovated Pilgrim Congregational Church, was another marvelous surprise. This is a first-rate hall. The sanctuary is just a big wooden box, but its resonance never got in the way of the precision and clarity (even with all these Hungarian texts!) that are the Esoterics' strength.

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