Evan Ziporyn opens New Music fest with jazzy flair

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Photo: George Leposky, 2009.

The bass clarinet is a strange beast, an instrument that resembles a chrome-plated gardening tool yet is capable of an array of sounds from floor-shaking bass to ethereal high phrases.

The—take a breath—2009 New Music Miami ISCM Festival Series—exhale—opened Saturday night with Evan Ziporyn, one of the leading advocates of the bass clarinet offering a deftly varied concert of four works spotlighting his instrument.

Festival director Orlando Jacinto Garcia wisely elected to spread out the Florida International University festival this year rather than jamming all concerts into a single week as previously. There are five more events scheduled through May 3 at various venues.

Ziporyn is a genial individual and a brief discussion of the selections with Garcia made an apt prelude for the performances at the FIU Frost Museum of Art, with David Lang’s Press Release the lively opener.  Lang has morphed from antic pop beginnings as a cofounder of the Bang on a Can All Stars to respected composer, winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Lang wrote Press Release for Ziporyn in 1991 and describes it as a collision of “Johann Sebastian Bach and James Brown.”

I hear more Brown than Bach in Lang’s rock-funk style, with emphatic bass lines contrasted against long-limbed melodies on top. The lines grow increasingly elaborate and complex, mixing and separating. Like many a Lang work, it’s a bit repetitive and goes on too long for its material but the music received vital and energetic advocacy by its dedicatee, Ziporyn.

Garcia’s own Sombras Sobre Parque Central (shadows over Central Park) was written in Caracas in 2003 at a time of much political strife in ever-turbulent Venezuela, and expresses the composer’s longing for a peaceful respite.  It’s characteristic of Garcia’s music with a meditative, concentrated expression, though his pointillist style of acutely colored hues and precise balances are a bit diluted when scored for a single solo instrument. Still, it’s a compelling atmospheric work with haunting wind noise and slowly mutating fragments. Ziporyn made a worthy case, handling the  multiphonics, humming while playing and other challenges with fine skill and facility.

Ziporyn showed he’s no slouch on the traditional clarinet with a combustible rendition of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint. The only repertory item heard Saturday, Reich’s work places the soloist’s real-time solo playing against pre-recorded tape of ten different clarinet lines (including two bass clarinets). It’s reflective  of Reich’s Minimalist style at its most bracing and communicative, and Ziporyn brought off the pulsing, shifting syncopations with immense verve and panache.

Ziporyn saved the best, for last with his own Walk the Dog. Despite the offhand title, his composition amounts to a substantial 25-minute concerto for bass clarinet. Like the Reich piece, it juxtaposes live solo playing against a pre-recorded backing—in this case an offbeat  world-music electronic mélange, including Gambian harps, Balinese frogs, and what sounds like thundering elephants at one point.

Yet Walk the Dog is not a gimmicky piece, and the ever-churning electronic backdrop is a worthy canvas for Ziporyn’s high-stepping jazz solos and an array of agile multiple voicings and highly contrasted colors.  If the concerto is closer to jazz than the Western classical tradition, it suits Ziporyn’s populist style, and Walk the Dog is an original, well crafted and enjoyable work that need make no apologies for its far-flung influences.

The ISCM New Music Series continues with music for orchestra, chamber ensemble and video by Douglas Boyce, Stephen Yip, Paola Longo, Lansing McLoskey and Orlando Jacinto Garcia 8 p.m. Jan. 24 at Wertheim Performing Arts Center on the main FIU campus in Miami.  Admission is free. 305-348-0496; http://music.fiu.edu.

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Sun Jan 18, 2009
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