Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wild Rumpus at Old First Church

Last Friday at Old First Church, the contemporary music ensemble Wild Rumpus, along with a few "guest artists," offered one of the most satisfying and stimulating new music concerts I have experienced.

Much of this was due to the young soprano Vanessa Langer above, who sang five of Gyorgy Kurtag's 1986 Kafka Fragments accompanied by the reliably exceptional Joseph Maile on violin. The concert started with the two of them standing at the front of a side aisle in the church performing The good march in step..., wildly expressive music that also manages to slip in and out of folk tune tonalities. Though all the performers on the evening's program were accomplished virtuosos on their various instruments, it was Langer's voice that stunned many of us in the audience. It was simply gorgeous. No matter how extreme the musical pitches became and how deftly she negotiated them, she also sounded like a soprano you'd want to hear singing bel canto opera or early music any day of the week.

The short fragment was followed by an enjoyable world premiere called you & me by Ruby Felton, a Baltimore based composer that was an absorbing minimalist piece that intentionally kept sliding into chaos. (Weston Olencki is pictured on trombone above.) This was followed by another Kafka Fragment, except this time Mailes and Langer performed it from the balcony in the back of the church.

This was followed by Philip Glass's 1969 minimalist Music in Similar Motion, a 20-minute blast of sheer energy played by an ensemble that kept rotating instruments. Pictured above are the excellent McKenzie Camp on percussion whose Mod appearance channeled the 1960s as perfectly as the music, and the contrabass player Eugene Theriault.

Vanessa Langer returned to the stage for the 2012 Berceuse et Jeux by Caroline Miller, a composer currently in San Diego. She described the piece in the program as follows: "Berceuse et Jeux (Lullaby and Games) loosely refers to the idea of a ritualistic mantra chanted before sleeping, and the subsequent, chaotic demolition, reassembly, and transformation of such input through the dreaming mind." Langer, accompanied by Joanne de Mars (above) on cello and Theriault on bass, started by putting her finger to her mouth and singing, "Shhhhhhh....." and off we went into a remarkable lullaby that kept deconstructing into something much stranger. Throughout it all, one could not take one's ears or eyes off of Langer who gave an exquisite performance of the short, fascinating work.

Sophie Huet on bass clarinet and David Wegehaupt on saxophone honked and wailed away on the recently deceased New England Conservatory professor Lee Hyla's We Speak Etruscan, and after another Kafka Fragment from another section of the church, a large ensemble took the stage for the world premiere of the Solis Overture by Per Bloland (below).

As the composer noted, the piece was "very noisy" but though amplified, "all the instruments are acoustic except for the laptop." The projected opera is about a Norwegian modernist novelist of the 1960s who suddenly disappeared from public view, and the music was interesting and challenging. The sound design on this and all the evening's pieces by Sean Dougall was excellent, making me wish he could try his hand at Davies Hall. The performance of Solis ended theatrically with all the lights going out in the church as the final measures hummed away for a couple of minutes from the laptop.

In the darkness, Langer and violinist Mailes performed the final Kafka Fragment by the light of a solitary music stand, adding to the perfect dreaminess of the entire evening.

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