New song cycle highlights Curtis on Tour program

By Lawrence A. Johnson


It may have been serendipitous that Friends of Chamber Music of Miami was forced to move across Dixie Highway to Temple Judea on Tuesday night rather than holding the event at its usual venue, Gusman Concert Hall. A string ensemble would have suffered in the dry room, but with the wind-dominated program presented by Curtis on Tour, the temple was eminently well suited to Stravinsky’s spiky sonorities.

The ensemble consisted of student musicians from the esteemed Curtis Institute in Philadelphia joined by two Curtis teachers: composer David Ludwig (above) and double-bassist Harold Robinson, principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat has long been a part of the concert repertoire but perhaps the work’s most practical ongoing benefit is that to fill out programs, it has motivated other composers to produce works for the same offbeat instrumentation: violin, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion. Tuesday night, Ludwig’s From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam shared the bill.

 Set to fifteen of Khayyam’s quatrains, Ludwig has cast the Persian poetry into a cycle of five songs for mezzo-soprano and Soldat chamber ensemble, which forms an arc roughly reflecting the life cycle.

 Alternately acerbic and mystical, Ludwig’s music fits Edward Fitzgerald’s precise, graceful translations, like a well-tailored glove. The five settings are gratefully written for voice, and the scoring is brash, piquant, edgy and mercurial as the poetry requires.

 The composer could hardly wished for a finer advocate than Curtis student Allison Sanders. The Memphis-born mezzo-soprano has a bounteous voice and was a vivid, eloquent exponent in this challenging score. In addition to doubling on Japanese cymbals, Sanders handled the score’s varied expressive range, from exotic vocalise to angry imprecations, capturing the spare, withdrawn sadness of the final setting, Carpe diem, particularly well. Student conductor Kuok-man Lio led the ensemble in equally vital and sympathetic support.

 Ludwig moved gracefully from composer to actor after intermission, taking on the narrator role for Stravinsky’s L’ Histoire. Even if the music is secondary to the spoken part for the first half, Stravinsky’s score remains remarkably fresh with its satiric, angular musical take on the Faustian tale. Ludwig did a creditable job of portraying the various characters, even devilishly whisking conductor Lio down the central aisle and out of the temple at the finale. Apart from burying Ludwig’s words in The Devil’s Song, Lio directed the snappy, rhythmic score skillfully, and drew a superb performance from the Curtis players with outstanding contributions from violinist Josef Spacek and trumpeter Christopher Stingle.

Composed around the same time was Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for solo clarinet, which opened the evening. While his incipient Neoclassical phase is clearly manifest, the three brief movements incorporate a wide range of music. Clarinetist Yao Guang Zhai was a polished and dynamic soloist, his firmly focused tone conveying the introspection of the first section as surely as the virtuosity and jazzy bravura of the final two pieces.

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Wed Feb 25, 2009
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