NOVA Chamber Music Series’ Reflections concert a fun grand slam of a musical experience

Reflections, the most recent NOVA Chamber Music Series concert, eloquently conveyed its theme in a cohesive, imaginative way that any artistic director should envy.

Throughout the season, Madeline Adkins, NOVA’s music director, has expanded upon the organization’s unique branding for programming concerts with themes that elucidate new dimensions of music appreciation. Adkins, the Utah Symphony concertmaster, really knocked this one out of the park.

The first half comprised two works by Andrew Norman and Claude Debussy’s last work (his Violin Sonata), and their juxtaposition opened the Reflections theme akin to the experience of an art and design installation in an exhibition space. The theme received yet another angle in the second half of the program, featuring works by Norman and Antonín Dvořák, both composed, respectively, in the earlier phases of their careers. As noted previously in The Utah Review, Norman communicates his passion for innovative contemporary architecture through structures and forms in his music.

Andrew Norman.

Indeed, the results in the Libby Gardner Hall on The University of Utah campus introduced a new acoustic relationship for concertgoers. The hall is known for its vibrant, bright acoustics and music composed with crystalline structures can be a delight. Those acoustics also keep musicians especially alert because errant sounds or even slight performance slip-ups rarely go unnoticed.

In the first movement of Norman’s Mine Mime Meme (2016), the flutist and the violin were positioned at opposing ends in the hall’s upper tier, while the remainder of the sextet (Caitlin Valovick Moore, Erin Svoboda, Evgenia Zharzhavskaya, Anne Francis Bayless, Keith Carrick and Hilary Demske) are on stage. The cellist on stage played musical phrases and textures that the other musicians imitated. In this brief movement, the listener was constantly relocating the sound, which produced a new resonating experience in the hall. The musicians left the stage after the first movement, which was followed by the second piece on the program, Frank’s House (2016), also by Norman.

Scored for two pianists (Kimi Kawashima and Hilary Demske) and two percussionists (Keith Carrick and Eric Hopkins), the piece evoked a very convincing image of architect Frank Gehry’s home in Santa Monica, a residence built in the 1920s but then after Gehry purchased it in the 1970s he transformed it with corrugated steel and large angular window cubes. For percussion effects, Norman’s instructions would make any home improvement enthusiast proud. There were the chain link fence, a large section of corrugated steel, screwdrivers, dowels, flakeboard and newspaper that a percussionist crumpled and threw on stage. The percussionists created sounds by tracing the odd curves found in many of the architect’s most famous designs. The work’s rhythmic sense often was so tight but there also were improvisational moments that loosened up and, again, evoked the distinguishing elements of Gehry’s architectural designs.

William Hagen.

Amidst the impressive array of hardware for percussionists and three pianos on stage, the sextet returned for the second movement of Mine Mime Meme, where the cellist ramped up the musical figures and the imitative expressions become more intense, as other members of the ensemble wrestled for musical control. Once the brief movement ended, violinist William Hagen and pianist Kimi Kawashima came on stage for the Debussy Violin Sonata.

Velvety, sumptuous, sinewy and soulful, the performance did more than eminent justice to this 13-minute work. At 55, in 1917, Debussy, wracked by cancer and disgusted by the global war, foreshadowed the neoclassical language that would develop in the works of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and other 20th century composers. In Debussy’s hands, his final composition is the elegant soliloquy in the life of a composer whose creative passions were as much informed by art, literature and Symbolist aesthetics as by any technical element of music.

Hagen imbued the piece with a rarefied emotional connection to the work’s gorgeous colors and textures. A Salt Lake City native who first performed with the Utah Symphony at the age of nine, Hagen already has set forth an impressive international career while still in his twenties. In 2015, he was the first American since 1980 to place in the top level of the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Belgium, taking the third prize. Hagen also returned to the stage in the second half for Norman’s Light Screens and the Dvořák string quintet.

Rehearsal for Dvořák’s String Quintet. Photo Credit: NOVA Chamber Music Series.

After Debussy, there was the perfect segue into the final movement of Mine Mime Meme, as the sextet returned to finish the battle, so to speak, taking and sharing the theme played by the cellist and wondering which musician will have the final say. Overall, it’s a wonderful impressionistic piece about a meme going viral and the struggle for its originating source to claim ownership. In summary, a hugely entertaining example of hacker’s music.

Norman’s Light Screens, scored for flute and string trio (Cailtin Valovick Moore, William Hagen, Brant Bayless, and Anne Francis Bayless) opened the second half with the immense array cleared completely from the stage. Written in 2002, when the composer was just 23, Light Screens reflects his passion for Frank Lloyd Wright’s art glass windows that marked the architect’s Prairie designs. Norman alternates between energetic agitated rhythmic characters and a calmer, yet intensely contemplatively tone in the work. Overall, it is an intimate synthesis of these contrasts interpreted with crystal impact by the ensemble. There are moments that evoke Norman’s appreciation for Aaron Copland, one of his earliest formative influences.

Icing the cake with an exuberant youthful flourish was the closing featuring Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Opus 77.  The work premiered in 1875, just as Dvořák’s career expanded quickly. It is one of the best early reminders of the composer’s distinct musical language. Hagen,
Zharzhavskaya and the Bayless couple were joined by Ted Merritt on bass).

Put simply, it was a fun concert with great impact. Capping the afternoon’s results was the announcement that the Fry Street Quartet will be NOVA’s music director, beginning next season. The group, which is in residence at Utah State University and has performed in NOVA concerts, suggests that this dynamic approach to music appreciation will continue to flourish and challenge listeners as well as musicians accordingly (Watch The Utah Review in April for a feature about this unique artistic relationship).

Two subscription concerts remain in NOVA’s current season and both promise equally innovative programming concepts: Parallel Worlds (April 28) on the intersection of jazz and classical music, and The Head and The Heart (May 19) on the cerebral ideas and pure thrills of music.

For more information and tickets, see the NOVA Chamber Music Series web site.

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