Thursday, March 05, 2015

Darkness & Light with Wild Rumpus

Wild Rumpus, the Bay Area new music ensemble, gave a hugely successful concert last Saturday at the intimate Center for New Music downtown, and they attracted an unexpected overflow crowd. Jen Wang, one of the group's founders, offered a free IPA beer at intermission to anyone willing to forego a seat and instead stand through the concert, which may be some kind of a first. I gave up my seat and snuck into the curtained-off balcony offices above where there were better photo sightlines.

The concert was called Darkness & Light, a theme not particularly rigorously observed which was a blessing, and it included three world premieres along with other recently composed music. The opening number was Silver Threads, a short aria with electronics by Jacob Cooper featuring my favorite young soprano diva of the moment, Vanessa Langer above, who can seemingly sing anything and make it compelling.

(switch) was a commissioned world premiere from composer David Bird that required Jessie Nucho on alto flute, and Sophie Huet on bass clarinet to make lots of clicking sounds with their stops and air blowing sound effects without actually playing their instruments, while Joanne de Mars grounded the piece with occasional drones for her cello. Click here for an explanation from the composer on the Wild Rumpus blog. This was the only music of the evening that felt like a disappointment.

Things picked up considerably with the next world premiere, DreamPlay, by Ioannis Angelakis for the sextet of Jessie Nucho on flute, Sophie Huet on clarinet, Weston Olencki on trombone, McKenzie Camp on percussion, Margaret Halbig on piano, and Eugene Theriault on double bass with Nathaniel Berman conducting. There's a good interview with Angelakis on the blog where he explains how the playwright Strindberg threw out linearity in his late plays, and Angelakis is trying to do the same thing with his composing. The music wandered all over the place in its own logic and it was a colorful, interesting ride, with a magnificent performance by Olencki above in a very difficult part.

This was followed by Wild Rumpus co-founder Dan VanHassel's Balance of Power where he "pits the opposing forces of noise and harmony against each other." It was a surprisingly delicate and pleasing piece of music.

The highlight of the evening was performed after intermission, Oakland composer/sound artist David Coll's Position, Influence, which sounded like nothing I've ever heard before. It's another piece written for soprano, percussion and electronics except that the singer is controlling the sheet metal array behind her with breathing, vocalizing, and touch, or at least I think that was what was going on. The piece requires singing, chanting, and simple French speech, along with the physical and musical chops to virtually control the percussion wall. Sometimes the singing was amplified and fed back, while just as often it was unamplified, creating a marvelous texture. The composer himself was sitting at the sound controls, and the whole piece was a triumph, especially in Vanessa Langer's fearless performance.

Taking the temperature down several notches was a lovely performance by Mia Nardi-Huffman on violin and Margaret Halbig on piano of Arvo Part's Fratres.

The final world premiere was Ben Richter's Water's Edge (click here for the interview). In context it felt slight and peaceful, but the piece became more hypnotic and absorbing as it went on. An octet from Wild Rumpus was again conducted by Nathaniel Berman.

The gentle mood was abruptly shattered with a tight, fun, percussive performance of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen's Workers Union. The 1977 composition is a famous modern landmark but until Saturday I didn't have a clue why. It turns out that the composer wrote a score with rhythm but no pitch for "any loud sounding group of instruments." The lineup in the program included David Wegehaupt on tenor saxophone and Weston Olencki on trombone, but Wegehaupt was ill, so Olencki jumped over to the piano which he prepared himself with a number of stops in the strings.

He joined Dan VanHassel on electric guitar, Eugene Theriault on double bass and Mckenzie Camp on percussion, and you can hear a lo-fi recording of the performance by clicking this link to their Facebook page. And if you are curious to see what the group is up to next, Wild Rumpus is hosting a free open rehearsal at the Center for New Music on Friday, March 27th.

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