The Chamber Music Society of Baltimore opened its 44th season last night by presenting the New York-based new-music ensemble Continuum in a program that included two world premiere performances of works by composers (both in their late 50s) from the former Soviet Union. The more immediately striking of these was "And It Will Be," a setting of eight of Mykola Vorobyov's poems by Leonid Hrabovsky, a Ukrainian composer now living in New York. This work for singer, ensemble (including piano and synthesizer, clarinet and violin) and conductor features its three instrumentalists doubling on various kinds of percussion instruments. The work showed a fascination with textures and timbres that reminded this listener of George Crumb. The passionate Ukrainian texts were well sung by mezzo-soprano Nan Hughes, conducted by Continuum's co-director Joel Sachs, and performed by clarinetist David Gresham, violinist Renee Jolles and pianist Cheryl Seltzer.
The other premiere was of "Vestige," a trio for violin, clarinet and piano, by the Azerbaijani-born Oleg Felzer, also now a resident of New York. This work, more conventional in its instrumentation and in the way it sounded than that of Hrabovsky, was clearly soaked in the traditional music of the composer's native land and made a pleasant (if not a lasting) impression.
The program also presented another clarinet trio -- this time by the St. Petersburg-born Galina Ustvolskaya. Her work in her native city with her teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, was mentioned in Joel Sachs' program notes and declared in her music -- through quotations (the opening of her trio, which was written in 1949 and revised in 1975, sounds remarkably like the older composer's Symphony No. 5 and the finale alludes to his String Quartet No. 5 and the "Michelangelo Sonnets") and through its darkly lyrical mood.
The concert opened with performances of several of Conlon Nancarrow's fascinating and difficult keyboard works (sparklingly played in piano four-hands arrangements by Seltzer and Sachs) and went on to include works by the late John Cage (of the well-known operatic parody, "Aria") and by his disciple, the late Morton Feldman. The Feldman works were "Voice, Violin and Piano" (1976), in which melodic fragments expanded and contracted monotonously, and the even more monotonous Piano Four-Hands (1958), which sounded like something by Erik Satie when the Frenchman was having a very bad day.