Countermeasures is an apt title for a piece of music. The term typically refers to political or military tactics or to a biological instinct of nature where plants and animals respond to a threat or combat danger. Like authors, composers sometimes struggle with titles. “My working title initially for this piece was ‘Four for the Road,’” says Steve Roens, a composer and educator at The University of Utah, in an interview with The Utah Review.
However, Countermeasures meets the challenge of titling perfectly. Scored for a woodwind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon), the five-minute work, commissioned by the NOVA Chamber Music Series, will receive its premiere in the Contrasts concert on Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. in the Libby Gardner Hall at the university campus.
It is poised to be the effective opener in a program featuring works by Bartók, Schumann and Libby Larsen. Roens sets the piece in four short sections. For example, as he explains in some notes, “the first of the four pieces begins melodically with a large leap in the bassoon that returns to the same pitch and then lands on a major second with the clarinet; the first countermeasure arrives as an interruption of the melodic material by a dissonant four-note chord, made up of minor seconds.” Listeners will note how these elements appear in subsequent sections, only to be met by a new countermeasure. Sometimes, the originating material is played in reverse by different instruments or, in one instance of the final movement, where the bassoon melody is played by the flute in “an approximate retrograde inversion (that is in reverse and upside down),” as Roens explains.
Roens, who says his harmonic language has “evolved and devolved” in terms of its influence from Second Viennese School composers such as Anton Webern and Alban Berg, studied with the late Seymour Shifrin during his graduate student days at Brandeis University. Named in the 1970s by Time magazine as one of the generation’s most significant composers, Shifrin, according to writer Paul Horsley, was known “for a hard-edged chromaticism, which often crosses over into atonality and even serialism, but which is tempered by a consistent and intelligent use of forms and periodic phrase-structures familiar to most listeners.” This bit of creative inheritance has mattered in Roens’ life as composer and teacher.
Roens has received numerous commissions and Countermeasures represents his third from NOVA. He has had a long interaction with NOVA, spanning more than 30 years, including past artistic directors such as Barbara Scowcroft and Jason Hardink. Currently on a semester-long sabbatical, Roens will return to teaching in January before his retirement next spring at the end of the school year.
In addition to Countermeasures, he has composed a new work for solo piano as commissioned by Hardink, which will receive its premiere in January in the first of three events celebrating the centenary of the first edition of Charles Ives’ iconic composition, the Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-60.
Roens says extra-musical influences include literature. Among them is one of the greatest contemporary American poets, W. S. Merwin, who died in March. He also has set poems by Katharine Coles, a fellow University of Utah faculty member and a former Utah poet laureate, to music. He and Coles are planning to set a chamber opera based on Reckless, her novel that is more appropriately characterized as nonfiction and is based on the life of her maternal grandparents.
Roens says his wife believes his music “sounds like southern Utah,” sometimes sparse but yet expansive. To wit: Delicate Arch, a 1992 work for flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin and cello. His music is published by the Association for the Promotion of New Music and is available on the Centaur label.
Bookending the concert will be Bartók’s Contrasts (1938), a trio for violin, clarinet and piano. Talk about contrasts: he wrote the piece for two of the best known musicians from different worlds: Benny Goodman, jazz clarinetist, and Joseph Szigeti, violinist. It was Szigeti who suggested the idea to Bartók, as he recounted in his autobiography, and noted in a 2018 article by Vera Lampert in The Musical Quarterly. “I tried to diversify my programs . . . by calling upon composers to collaborate with me in their works . . . thus creating a little oasis in a recital program where the composer and not the reproducing artist could be the center of interest. I also enlisted the help of fellow artists . . . and I invariably found that, after these excursions into different media of sound, my audience seemed to listen to the rest of the program with added zest,” Szigeti wrote.
Likewise, Szigeti was wowed by Goodman and his band at a Carnegie Hall concert in early 1938 and, in particular, what was the clarinetist’s signature closing number, Sing, Sing, Sing. The trio, with Bartók at the piano, would premiere the work at Carnegie Hall in 1939. The music has a strong Hungarian imprint but also offers up impulses of jazz. For example, one movement is marked as Verbunkos, which represented a popular dance form originating in the 18th century where regimental soldiers were recruited into service with hard-partying rituals of drinking and dancing. The final movement takes its cue from the Magyar couple’s dance of mezőségi, which is customarily done in two contrasting sections, the first marked lassú (slow) and the second as sebes (fast). The second movement is marked as relaxed (Pihenő).
Adding to the Contrasts theme will be Libby Larsen’s (1950-) Dancing Solo for clarinet. Fry Street Quartet, NOVA’s music directors, has collaborated with Larsen on various projects. Commissioned in the 1990s by clarinetist Caroline Hartig, this 13-minute work is scored in four movements. In her own notes, Larsen describes it as arising from personal joy: “Dancing alone—improvising with the shadows, the air, on an inner beat, upon a fleeting feeling—has always enthralled me. With Dancing Solo, I am making a dance for clarinet, a dance composed of color, rhythm, beat implied and explicit, and breath: the music is the dance and the dance is the music.”
A fourth work will be Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Op. 16, an eight-movement piece for solo piano that the composer wrote in 1838 at the age of 28 and revised a dozen years later. The work essentially is a portrait of a recurring character (Johannes Kreisler) in several tales by E. T. A Hoffmann. The music reflects the counterpoint character attributes, in one moment as a tomcat and another as a respected musical genius. Critics such as The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini consider this 30-minute work to be Schumann’s masterpiece. As noted in The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide (2018), “the first piece begins with a breathless, almost fiendish whirlwind of spiraling right-hand passage work, prodded forward with jumpy octaves and chords in the left hand. But listen more closely and a hint of a melodic line, maybe more than one, seems to be trying to break through the rush of right-hand notes; and the rising octaves and chords of the left hand are going through a complex, almost tortured harmonic journey. And that’s just the first section of the first piece in this suite.”
Performers for the concert will include clarinetists Erin Svoboda and Tad Calcara, oboist James Hall, flautist Mercedes Smith and pianists Andrew Staube and Frank Weinstock along with bassoonist Lori Wike and violinist Alex Woods. Tickets and more information are available at the NOVA website.
GALLERY SERIES CONCERT: MOZART AND BRITTEN
The utmost clarity of technical execution and emotional expression succinctly sums up the season’s first of two Gallery Series concerts, which featured the Fry Street Quartet in four works, two apiece by Mozart and Britten.
Among the most impressive aspects was the outstanding balance of the four string voices, not an easy task in the G.W. Anderson Family Hall at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Part of it perhaps was due to having a sold-out audience capacity. In addition, gallery visitors, especially on the second floor, mentioned how the sound filtered throughout the space, thus giving those who did not have tickets their own opportunity to enjoy the concert.
Barely two months into the season, Fry Street Quartet has proven its skills in smart thematic programming that NOVA’s preceding music directors have demonstrated.
The two Mozart offerings represented the phenom in the 1780s, at the cusp of the extraordinary burst of creativity that would mark the final years of his life. Meanwhile, the two Britten works came from the bookends of his own career: one, at the age of 20, and the other, the final work of his life, shortly before his death at the age of 63.
However, Fry Street Quartet finely juxtaposed the works in two halves that refocus our perspectives for appreciating the works of two composers who share more in terms of their creative expressionistic impulses than the separation of two centuries might indicate.
The first half conveyed the emotional, sobering wisdom of life, transformed by experience and accumulated knowledge. Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546 arose out of practical considerations. Originally, the composer wrote the fugue for two pianos, but it was never performed publicly and then several years later in the period where he wrote new music at a torrid pace, he recast it for strings and added an opening adagio. The quartet expressed convincingly the contrasts of the opening section with its grave, severe angular pulses and later softer lyrical textures. The most impressive part, though, came in the fugue, where each of the voices remained clear as ever, despite the growing thickness and density of the fugue. The reward is the thrilling unison chords at the end, of course in the base key of C minor.
Just as masterful was the rendering of Britten’s Third String Quartet (1975). In the more than 43 years since his death, Britten’s reputation has expanded significantly, just as Shostakovich’s star perhaps has dimmed slightly while Bartók’s has become more luminous. In this final work of Britten’s life, the emotions are shaded in complex ways, sometimes seeming affirmed and satisfied and others wistful or even ambiguous about the approaching end of his life. The Fry Street Quartet produced a truly moving, often mesmerizing, tribute to this incredible piece.
The intriguing part of the second half was how the quartet reversed the conventional programming path. Normally, the concert opens on the brighter landscape to entice and settle the listener into the challenges of absorbing more intense sonic experiences later in the program. Here, it was reversed and the second half sparkled.
After hearing a work composed during his period of debilitating illness, the joys of Britten’s Three Divertimenti revealed the genius that already was apparent at the age of 20 when he composed these pieces. Charming, playful and technically exciting, the pieces make a convincing case for matching Britten’s young genius capacities to that of Mozart, a composer whom he adored and considered seriously as a model to emulate. The Fry Street Quartet lifted this youthful work with astonishing authenticity of ebullience.
The closing work, Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387 (also known as the Spring Quartet), showcased the ensemble’s assiduousness for superb execution to magnify the contextual connection of this piece to Britten’s Three Divertimenti. This was the first of the six Mozart string quartets written in honor of the older master of the form, Joseph Haydn. Of course, later Haydn string quartets would reflect the influence of these works.
The Spring Quartet is a marvelous but difficult piece to achieve the right effect. The first movement starts out as clear and tightly knit as we have come to expect from Mozart but then, not so unexpectedly, he displays his breadth and depth of sophistication by loosening, even destabilizing, the music’s internal structure. Later, the second Mozart fugue to appear in this program expounds on elements that make this one more audacious and complex, especially as it seems unpredictable at times. Nevertheless, this fugue is the opportunity to demonstrate Mozart’s incredible musical logic in meshing Baroque and Classical sensibilities into one damn exhilarating finale. And, the Fry Street Quartet delivered the results with resounding impact in the venue.