Towson State University's annual 20th Century Music Festival ended last night with a concert by the American Camerata for New Music. It is a pity that fewer than about 40 people were in the university's Fine Arts Auditorium to hear the world premiere of the chamber version of Gordon Cyr's song cycle, "From Whitman's 'Drum-Taps."
This is a piece that was actually first presented in a version for baritone and piano in 1985. Cyr has substantially reworked it, expanding the instrumentation to include string quartet and string bass and winds, as well as piano. It is a powerful, passionate response to the powerful and passionate poems Whitman wrote in response to the horrors he experienced in the American Civil War. Its fifteen-minute length is divided among four poems, all of which are beautifully set by the composer and were affectingly sung by Michael Ingham.
The second of these, "World Take Good Notice," was a darting scherzo with alarming, startling chords from the piano and winds that often punctuated the keening strings. And there was an angry, haunted nocturne -- the third movement "Look Down Fair Moon" -- that challenged some of the best vocal settings of Britten or Shostakovich in its visceral, emotional power. The ensemble was well directed by the camerata's music director, John Stephens.
The concert featured another world premiere, Stephens' own Concerto for Violin and Chamber Octet, which was performed by violinist Joel Berman.
This was more standard-issue stuff than the Cyr piece. But if it was not particularly original-sounding, it was effectively written, with some nicely turned lyrical passages for the solo instrument and some jazzily insouciant moments for percussion and harp in the perpetual motion finale. The piece was played with fire and virtuosity by the soloist, to whom it is dedicated.
The opening work was the less impressive Quintet for Piano and Winds by Roy Harris (1936). This piece, with its almost orchestral sonorities and its polyphonic treatment of its materials, seemed to owe a debt to the piano quintet of Franck. Like the Franck, it is superheated in its intensity. But unlike the earlier work, does not really begin to move until its concluding fugue.
It was well played by the pianist William Moore with an accompaniment by the string quartet that was not particularly well-tuned.
The concert concluded with a performance of a chamber-music version of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" that a deadline did not permit this writer to hear.