On Jan. 28, faculty members of the University of Rhode Island’s department of music came together to perform in the contemporary music ensemble, coordinated by cello professor Theodore Mook.
Held in the main concert hall of the Fine Arts Center for a small, intimate audience, the event showcased five pieces by modern composers which explored narrative and abstract forms and utilized a wide range of instruments from tuba to vibraphone, all performed immaculately and with great reverence by the featured performers.
The first piece of the afternoon, “Winter Circle,” composed by Kristen Volness, a professor of music composition and theory, was one of two pieces played that afternoon that was composed by a URI staff member present at the event. The other being “La Vallee du Gresivaudan” by Eliane Aberdam, professor of music. Dr. Kyle Forsthoff, a music professor and coordinator of the percussion ensemble, performed the solo piece on the vibraphone, a massive xylophone-like instrument for which the movement was composed. The piece seemed to communicate a sense of eerie calm, accentuated by Forsthoff’s deliberate and subtle striking of keys with up to five mallets at once, the use of repeated patterns at varying speeds and intensities, the use of deadened notes, and the harmonic qualities of the vibraphone itself.
The floor was then turned over to Mook, and guest vocalist, mezzo-soprano Katherine Growdon, who has performed with the Mark Morris Group and with the Handel and Haydn Society, Boston’s most prestigious baroque orchestra in Boston. She has also received praise from The New York Times, among other publications. The piece, “If I Told Him” was composed for the cello and vocal performance by Ezra Sims, who Mook and Growdon explained composed it based on the writings of poet Gertrude Stein. The performance consisted of Growdon alternating between reciting surreal poetry by Stein and vocalizing while Mook provided musical accompaniment with the cello.
Mook was then joined by internationally recognized pianist and department of music staff member Gayane Darakyan in a rendition of “Tres Lent,” a piece composed by Joan Tower inspired by the earlier work of Olivier Messiaen. The piece moves very slowly and deliberately between the piano and the cello, in a deliberate omage to Messiaen, whose work Tower idolized due to its risk-taking nature and purposefully slow movement. Mook and Darakyan captured the simplicity and precision of the piece with their two instruments. Each stroke and key resonated deeply, earning the pair as raucous a round of applause as the viewing audience could muster before a short intermission was called in order to set up for the next piece.
Following the brief reprieve, the floor was handed to professor of music Eliane Aberdam, who introduced “La Vallee de Gresivaudan,” a piece of her own composition, performed by tuba player and URI professor in tuba, Gary Buttery, with whom Aberdam collaborates often. The piece, as Aberdam explained, was held together by a narrative focusing on the natural history of a glacial valley in the arctic, with distinct musical movements to represent the natural processes of snowfall forming a glacier, which carves out the Earth and melts to form a lake, which is then filled with sediments, finally forming a valley. Armed only with a tuba, Buttery used a myriad of interesting techniques to conjure up the sounds of nature, which Aberdam wished to portray in musical form as “unpredictable as well as very stable.”
For the final performance, Mook returned with his cello, joined by flutist and advisor and professor of flute Susan Thomas and Kirsten Volness, composer of the earlier piece “Winter Circle”, on piano, all of whom wore black domino masks for their rendition of “Vox Balenae (Voice of the Whale),” the most well-known and celebrated composition by George Crumb. Inspired by recordings of sounds emitted by humpback whales, Crumb composed the piece with eight distinct movements.
The first, “Vocalize,” had the flutist half-playing and half-vocalizing into the flute, creating sounds which seemed to suggest the frailty of life against the vastness of the sea, which is exemplified by the following movement, “Sea Theme,” wherein the pianist reached into her piano and strummed the wires to create shimmering, cacophonous sounds. The next several movements, all named for geological time periods, include “Archeozoic,” into which the cello is introduced, “Proterozoic,” during which the pianist plucked single strings with paperclips, “Paleozoic,” “Mezozoic,” which saw the pianist place a metallic rod on the strings as she played, changing the tone and sustain of the instrument, and finally “Cenozoic.”
The performance was rounded out by the final movement, “Sea-Nocturne,” which brought the event to a subtle close only for the room to erupt into yet another much deserved round of applause.
For more information on music convocations and other upcoming events by the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Music, of which there are many, visit web.uri.edu/music/music-department-events.