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The Baltimore Sun

Music Review: "On Connecticut Naturalism" at The Studio @ Billings Forge

There was an electric, distinctly urban feeling lurking up and down Hartford’s Broad Street on the drive south toward the Frog Hollow neighborhood. The Earth Trio, a group of players associated with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, was camped out at The Studio, the airy, loft-style performance space at Billings Forge, ready to play contemporary music for 35 or so listeners.  

“Seems about right for a contemporary music concert,” quipped one audience member.

You can't blame folks for not being present in greater numbers. It was the hottest day of the year so far; Latin music thrummed from passing cars and seemingly everyone was on the street, some with wet towels draped over their heads to help them cool off. Janice La Motta, Arts Program Director at Billings Forge, who welcomed the small crowd and said the concert marked the “beginning of a partnership” with the HSO, kept the doors open until the last minute, when the Latin beats -- the “beauty of the urban setting,” La Motta said -- threatened to overtake the dissonances, the quietly-clashing dyads and spiky clusters, of Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir.

Expertly played by flautist Greig Shearer and pianist Gary Chapman, the relatively short birdsong stretched out in a linear, airy sprawl marked by rapid-fire pianistic bursts and imitative passages between the two instruments.

Messiaen’s work packs a lot of material in to five minutes: canonic passages playfully mingled with whole-tone melodies, as Shearer and Chapman played as though cooperating on a difficult task at times, jabbing and sparring at each other up until the ending, when the piano and flute staggered their last statements.

Cellist Jeffrey Krieger then emerged, electric instrument in hand, and took a seat behind a lamp-rigged Apple laptop, its screen filled with the music of composer Michael Gatonska’s On Connecticut Naturalism, a work he wrote for Krieger in 2003. (Gatonska himself, seated at the back of the hall, took a bow when it was over.)

Krieger explained the work’s geographical origins -- “about a mile from here, where the composer usually rides his bicycle” -- as Krieger prepared to work his own pedals below the laptop, capturing and looping bits of sound, layering whispers and hushed brushstrokes. Natural sounds, aural stand-ins for the Connecticut River, for water lapping on the shore of a lake, for nighttime stargazing -- contrasted with electronic, effect-heavy tones, meant to represent, as Krieger said, cement mixers, street musicians, the crackle of electrical wires, a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

At times, the amplification overpowered the space and startled some of the  the younger members of the audience, who clutched at their ears. Other moments felt like we were hearing an electric guitarist with too many pedals: distortion mixed with tremolo, reverb with phasing, organ-like tones layered on top of rhythms, tapped-out and looped. Only once, toward the end of the work, did the music break free from the technology, the ending, where Krieger gently stacked sustained tones that wandered in and out unexpectedly, as though the laptop was making independent, unseen decisions.

The trio returned for George Crumb’s 1971 Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), a work for electric flute, electric cello and amplified piano, introduced by Chapman as “bedrock classic American material” and composed when whale songs were first recorded and heard by humans. The players donned black plastic masks (called for in Crumb’s score, along with the dimming and blue-ing of the lighting scheme), transforming them temporarily into deep-sea divers.

It was a throwback moment, a nod to a time when the hippie aesthetic was alive and well: Crumb (pictured above in 1967) quotes the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, a wink at Stanley Kubrick’s mind-blowing "2001: A Space Odyssey," whose soundtrack featured contemporary fare by Ligeti and Penderecki.

Shearer sang into his flute while fingering the keys, creating weird underwater effects, suggesting, also that Crumb would’ve loved to have Krieger’s laptop rig back in ‘71. At times, Chapman struck tones on the piano’s lower strings, letting them ring for a second or two before touching them with a paper clip (“the largest he could find at Staples,” Chapman said) to generate buzzes and rasps. (He created other effects with a chisel and an unmentionable object, one Chapman would only describe as something that would “shock” us if we knew what it was.)

It was easy to feel as though trapped in the loneliness of the ocean, a terrain seemingly as vast an unexplored as Kubrick’s outer space. A jazzy middle passage, with plucked seventh chords on the cello and bluesy flute runs, passed without pause, before a surprisingly serene, tonally-stable ending, where pentatonic melodies ran together into a dramatic final caesura, an evolutionary turn, perhaps, from the murky post-war waters of total serialism and whirling chance-driven music.

If this concert is any indication of what’s to come from this series, Hartford audiences, even small ones, are in for a swell ride.

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