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Mazzoli, Lang Intrigue CCM Audience

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Oct 18, 2013 - 4:31:59 PM in reviews_2013


Café Momus at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music was open Wednesday evening.

Guest of honor  was New York composer Missy Mazzoli, composer-in-residence with the 2013 Constella Festival.

An enthusiastic audience welcomed Mazzoli to Patricia Corbett Theater (i.e. Café Momus), for a performance of her music by the Café Momus Contemporary Music Ensemble.  (The name comes from the meeting place of the artist/bohemians in Puccini’s opera “La Boheme.")

Also heard was a work by David Lang, co-founder/artistic director of New York's Bang on a Can, a new music advocacy group akin to CCM's
Café Momus.

It was an absorbing program, ranging from a tribute to Death Valley Junction, California to Lang’s iconoclastic “These Broken Wings.”

The music, all of it for small ensemble, was led by doctoral students in conducting (the better to tackle Mazzoli’s music, which she described in remarks to the audience as "very hard" to put together).

Conductor Michael Goist went first with Mazzoli’s “Death Valley Junction” for string quartet (2010), a ten-minute homage to a dot on the map with a storied history, primarily that of former Broadway chorus girl Marta Becket, now 89, who performed her own shows at the town’s Amargosa Opera House for over 40 years, often with no audience to hear her. Commissioned by the Kronos String Quartet, it had a bleak, forlorn aspect, beginning with hazy harmonics and utilizing lots of portamento (sliding from one note to another). The cello took over at the end with a melodic passage ending on a big open C (lowest string on the instrument).

Mazzoli's “Shy Girl Shouting Music” (2005), for voice, piano, electric guitar and double bass, was led by conductor Yael Font.  It featured soprano Huan Jing in wordless vocalization, proceeding from guttural “oo ahs,” breathed into a microphone accompanied by soft tapping on the piano, to a full-voiced “ah.” There was some motivic interplay with the guitar, all of it returning to more “oo ahs” and some low-lying vocal glissandos at the end.

For a true minimalist effect, there was “In Spite of All This” (2005) for violin, clarinet, guitar, cello and percussion, led by conductor Junping Qian. Here Mazzoli spins a continuous, repeated melody while the other instruments play with it in fragmentary form. It became quite a toe-tapper, drumbeat and all, only to trail off at the end.

Lang’s “Broken Wings” (2008), for violin, cello, clarinet, flute/piccolo, piano and percussion, followed intermission. Mazzoli described it as a work Lang wrote purposely to drive his players to their limits. In three parts, it began with a bell-like movement calling for all of the instruments to play in their topmost register. Rhythmically complex, it was quite challenging indeed, with changes of meter almost every bar (kudos to conductor Michael Goist).

Part two, marked “thin, distant and creepy” consisted of slow-moving, scalar lines, with a directive for the players to drop metal rods on the floor during rests. This came as a shock to the unprepared listener, but was fully in tune with the composer’s additional instruction to play “slowly and with a great sense of futility.” (To top it off, percussionist David Abraham pushed over a music stand at the end.)

Part three of Lang’s work – marked “ecstatically energetic” – made the perfect contrast, with rapid, staccato figures and an abrupt, stopped-in-its-tracks ending.

The concert closed with Mazzoli’s 2009 “Still Life with Avalanche” for violin, cello, clarinet, flute, piano, percussion and harmonica, a work commissioned by the chamber ensemble eighth blackbird (former ensemble-in-residence at CCM). Conductor Junping Qian led the Ensemble. Mazzoli wrote it at an artist colony in upstate New York, she said. Midway through its composition, she received a telephone call that a cousin had died very suddenly. The piece captures that moment “when the shock of real life works its way into the music’s joyful and exuberant exterior,” she said.

Indeed, there is such a moment in the piece when, after a calm beginning, lulled by the sound of two harmonicas (doubled by the flutist Kelsey Snider and percussionist Sean Klopfenstein) and a happy, “boulevard” sound, the drum interrupts, followed by a soft statement by violin and cello. From there, the music turns harsh and satirical, with wry glissandos, a “playful” melody and a busy percussionist, who must negotiate vibraphone, kick drum and snare drum all at once, while playing harmonica via a neck brace. The piece ended with a sad little harmonica duet, followed by a quick, sharp cutoff.

Mazzoli completed her residency with master classes Thursday at CCM, leaving her students doubtless as energized and inspired as they had been by her music.