Imagine your iPod Shuffle is filled entirely with deep cuts by iconic American composers. Spiky, dissonant chamber works dissolve into elegiac, open-sky hymns. Dive-bombing percussion instruments interrupt minimalist string textures, and expressive, post-romantic strings cross-fade into virtuosic piano etudes. You listen intently, all the while unable to put a composer’s name to the sounds coming through your earbuds.
New Music lovers will experience this jarring blend of styles at the Hartt Contemporary Players Ensemble’s two-night tribute to American Icons, March 10 at the University of Hartford’s Lincoln Theater.
“People will come and look at the title and look at the composer and listen, and then listen to the next piece and think, ‘Wow, that’s the same composer?’” said Glen Adsit, associate director of instrumental studies at the Hartt School and the director of the contemporary players, a student group, since 2000.
The concert — featuring works by venerable, 101-year-old modernist Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland and John Adams (b. 1947), whose music has been described, among other ways, as “minimalist,” “postminimalist,” and “postmodern” — allows for audiences not only to hear very different composers but also two sides of the same composer. Carter’s “Elegy” (1943), for example, shows off an early bent for an American brand of neoclassicism. His spiky “Cello Sonata” (1948), meanwhile, while arguably still neoclassical in tone, sounds almost maddeningly academic. “The ‘Elegy’ and the ‘Cello Sonata,’” Adsit explained, “are so vastly different, yet there’s some connecting material that makes them both written by the same person.” (Carter apparently acknowledged this stylistic sea change by stating that his model shifted from Bach to Beethoven.)
Adams, meanwhile, who famously gravitated towards John Cage-ian philosophy and the music of minimalists Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, as a sanctuary from the soul-crushing experience of counting and composing with tone-rows, is represented on the program by “Postmark,” for alto saxophone and piano from “Fearful Symmetries” (1988) and the epic “Grand Pianola Music” (1982) for two pianos, three female voices, winds, brass and percussion.
The concert also features the work of Copland, allowing audiences to hear the populist version of the composer they know (and love) and a second, relatively unknown Copland, one who composed pieces, as Adams wrote in a 1999 essay, “as severe and Spartan and every bit as Modernist as anything written by his European contemporaries Schoenberg, Hindemith or Bartók.”
Copland’s three-movement chamber work “Sextet” (1937), based on the 1932-33 orchestral work “Short Symphony” he believed to be too difficult to perform, shares a bill with “Quiet City” (1940), incidental music for a play of the same name by Irwin Shaw, and a 13-player arrangement of Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet Appalachian Spring . “The ‘Sextet’ is pretty thorny,” Adsit explained. “His fellow composition faculty members would enjoy that. When you compare the ‘Sextet’ to Appalachian Spring or even ‘Quiet City,’ it feels like a different composer in some ways.”
While Copland freely mixed and mingled American folklore, jazz, revival hymns, cowboy songs and folk tunes, Adams, who is sometimes referred to as “Copland for the 21st Century,” has shown over the course of his career a reverence for Beethoven, Sibelius, rock music, minimalism, jazz and countless other musical styles. (Adams himself characterized “Grand Pianola Music” as Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, soaking “in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa.”) Both Copland and Adams gleaned “material” from Shaker sources — Copland’s literal use of the hymn “Simple Gifts” in Appalachian Spring and Adams’s pun on the use of tremolo bowing (“shaking”) in his popular “Shaker Loops.”
Few would confuse Carter’s mature, hyper-rational style, as exemplified by his string quartets and at least hinted at in the Cello Sonata, with music from any period of Copland’s output. Still, Copland’s final important works from the 1950s and beyond, like the late music of his contemporary Igor Stravinsky, show him struggling to come to grips with Schoenberg and Webern. These compositions, as Adams wrote, “retain a strong, provocative power first encountered in pieces from the Twenties.”
Adsit, who fell off a roof last November and was forced to cancel an earlier performance of “Grand Pianola Music,” said he is delighted to be back in action. During his 10-year tenure with the Players he has seen the level of musicianship in the group improve steadily along with the overall interest in contemporary music. “One of the things that I enjoy about the ensemble is that this is a core of musicians that is not only really terrific students but also really passionate about New Music,” Adsit said. “That makes it that much more enjoyable because they are eager to learn about new music and to discover and try new, interesting, crazy things that we do.”
Concert programs will be available, and you know what to expect. Still, just for fun, you can always choose to keep them closed and pretend to be surprised.