Sunday, September 19, 2010

Verge Ensemble at the Corcoran

Saw the first concert of the Verge Ensemble's season at the Corcoran this afternoon. Great playing by the ensemble members, though I found the program a mixed bag.

There was a lot to like in the first half. David Smooke creates a rich and involving sound world in his Hazmat Sextet (listen about halfway down the page here)--a kind of impromptu Rite of Spring carried out by the birds of an unidentified planet. The second offering was a video set to a sound design created by Ken Ueno (animation by Harvey Goldman), a mesmerizing sort of essay on the violent properties of bubbles (watch it here)--the unsettling sounds Ueno creates evoke violent, fundamental processes replicated across natural, mechanical, and human experiences. The last piece on the first half was Another Face, by David Felder, a dazzling turn for solo violin describing the psychological anguish of duality (excerpt here), which was played with great skill and depth by Lina Banh.

I'm afraid I need to put on my Philistine hat for a discussion of the second half pieces by Wesley Fuller and Eric Slegowski--both of which I found fairly tedious. Fuller's (phases/cycles for viola and computer) pitted the violist against an electronic track in a series of back and forth interactions, all painstakingly documented in the program notes and motivated by various weighty allusions. The description gave the piece a sort of playful cast, but there was little playfulness or wit in evidence--indeed, there seemed to be little interest in directly engaging the audience to understand the properties of the dialog as constructed. An interesting "experiment" if you will, but without a lot of interest for non-scientists.

The Slegowski piece (Resonance), a trio for wind, cello, and piano, suffered as well from higher aspirations. I have no doubt the plan announced in the notes--"an overarching form of expansion and contraction...movements connect with one another on both a micro- and macro-structural level...an organic evolution that characterizes the work in its entirety"--was executed as promised, but for practical purposes the work felt like an endless procession of anonymous little phrases, here fast, here slow, now soft, now loud, at once overwrought and meaningless.

To be taken with a grain of salt, as I have difficulties with works like this, but they always strike me as conceptual art works that bear only a passing resemblance to chamber music. I would actually be quite curious to hear these two in some kind of installation setting, but the traditional concert format seems like a terrible vehicle for works which don't offer many rewards for intensive, purposive listening.

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