Frost New Music Festival opens with a rewarding lineup of compelling music

By Lawrence Budmen

Shawn Crouch led the opening concert of the Frost New Music Festival Wednesday night.

A brief but exceptionally well-chosen program of works by leading contemporary composers and an intriguing score by a University of Miami alum opened the Frost New Music Festival on Wednesday night. Shawn Crouch led Ensemble Ibis in excellent streamed performances from the UM campus that included solo turns by gifted students. Although the concert was heralded as a “Year in Review “with the scores selected to traverse the highs and lows of this pandemic-fueled time,” the music was best heard without such specific associations.

Jessie Montgomery is very much a composer of the moment. Recently appointed composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Montgomery’s scores have been increasingly and widely performed. Starburst is one of her most frequently played works and the four-minute vignette makes a fine concert opener. Melodic particles dominate this clever fusion of minimalism and country fiddling. Crouch conducted the string players in an invigorating, high-precision reading.

Flutist Lily Xie was spotlighted on a darkened stage for Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I. This brief etude-like essay challenges the player in Berio’s distinctive modernist voice with extended techniques testing the limits of the instrument’s range. Xie’s dexterity and technical security were totally equal to the work’s demands. 

Harvest Lament by Frost alumnus Matthew Evan Taylor was a powerful seven-minute exploration of sorrow and hope. In introductory remarks, Taylor said the piece was about institutional slavery but his music speaks compellingly on its own terms. Dark, sorrowful chords from strings and solo violin immediately command attention. A suggestion of folk music from the harpsichord emerges through hazy figures and harp glissandos. The final quiet section provides an effective coda. Taylor brings an individual voice to his essentially conservative musical idiom. Alexi Whitsel’s silvery tone in the violin solos and Crouch’s strong leadership brought out the emotional undercurrents of Taylor’s piece.

Trombonist Aden Brooks was the sad clown of Berio’s Sequenza 5. Inspired by the Swiss clown Grock, Berio’s  piece is equal parts performance art and musical circus. Looking appropriately like a circus habitue, Brooks articulated Berio’s growls and grunt  with bravura efficiency. Asking Grock’s famous “Why?” midway through the act, Brooks then sat on a stool to play the muted, more somber music that followed. It takes a musician of wide-ranging facility to bring off this high-wire act and Brooks met it on its own terms.

Anna Clyne’s Within Her Arms, the evening’s finest offering, concluded the concert. Written in memory of the composer’s mother, Clyne’s 14-minute work is an elegiac meditation of great beauty. Repetitive melodic fragments and layered textures produce tremendous cumulative catharsis. 

Many composers have attempted to create a successor to Barber’s Adagio for Strings but Clyne is most successful than any in crafting a work of comparable quality. Her melodic writing remains with the listener long after the last notes have sounded. This heartfelt score should become a repertoire staple. Leading 13 string players, Crouch’s intense leadership matched Clyne’s striking and personal brand of lyricism. 

The admirable quality of works chosen and outstanding performances were a model of first-class contemporary music programming.

Shawn Crouch conducts Ensemble Ibis in Ryne Siesky’s Yellow Drips, Brett Dean’s Scene of the Crime, Tania Leon’s Momentum and Rachel Weiss is soprano soloist in Kira Namiko Wales’s Sonnet to Liberty, Charles Norman Mason’s I Feel the Fell of Dark and Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs. Streaming 7:30 p.m. May 7

Posted in Performances

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Thu May 6, 2021
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