The War Memorial Arts Initiative is off to an ambitious start for its 2015-2016 season. With a number concerts under its belt already (including an art song concert by Claire Galloway Weber and John Henderson; a Blues-Appalachia-Nordic crossover night with Charm City Junction, The Blue Rhythm Boys, and Dovetail Ensemble; as well as the Justin Taylor Trio), the series recently introduced one of its innovative programing elements for this series: the Pitcher-Perfect Happy Hour, featuring its Ensemble-in-Residence, the LUNAR ensemble.
LUNAR, a Pierrot-based ensemble led by Gemma New, opened its residency at the War Memorial with its program Old Texts Woven New, featuring Shakespearean text-setting by Canadian composer David Passmore (Dark Lady Sonnets) and a new work by yours truly (Prospero Variations), all generously funded with a grant from New Music USA. LUNAR continues its residency throughout the season with several large concerts and many touchstone events, namely, the Pitcher-Perfect Happy Hour. Each of these concerts features a different composer with Baltimore ties: its first featured Jason Eckardt, currently a Visiting Professor of Composition at the Peabody Conservatory, and most recently Judah Adashi, a Baltimore native who has spearheaded a number of new music and social justice initiatives in the city, as well being long-time Peabody faculty himself. (Future featured composers include Alexandra Gardner, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Michael Hersch.) The concerts are presented an informal atmosphere, lubricated by the presence of National Bohemian (and sometimes snacks), in which concert-goers can get to know each other, the performers, and the featured composer.
A Pitcher is Worth a Thousand Words
Each of these pitcher-portraits offered a compelling foray into the compositional worlds of each composer, which, in the case of Eckardt and Adashi, were thrillingly disparate.
Eckardt’s music can be startlingly complex, though this complexity belies an innate sense of organicism that organizes fraught rhythms and textures into a coalescence of sound and sense. This was beautifully realized by Stephanie Ray (flute) and Peter Kibbe (‘cello) in Ekcardt’s Flux, which explored the dynamism created between these instruments of (ostensibly) different qualities—though the moments in which the flutey harmonics of the cello and woody low tones of the flute melded together revealed the magic intrinsic in the music. Here, we see Eckardt’s interest in creating “ecosystems” of unpredictable elements bearing fruit, as they unify into a single pattern or state from their chaotic beginnings. The rhythms are dangerous, tight-rope-walking affairs, where the pulse seems razor thin, ready to snap its tether, but always in control under the deft hands of Ray and Kibbe.
This primordial chaos was particularly present in Dithyramb, performed by soprano Lisa Perry. This is a movement from a larger work (Tongues) that explores “glossolalia” (“speaking in tongues”). The work is made up completely of non-lexical vocables of intense rapidity (“non-sense” doesn’t do the sounds justice, as they move forward with a frenzied force that feels not only utterly appropriate but dizzyingly intoxicating). Perry—incredibly—seemed at ease delivering the mad patter, a supernatural summoning of the spirit Eckardt sought to embody.
Judah Adashi’s music seems redolent of equal intellectual rigor, but with a realization that tends towards a more direct simplicity (one is always careful to use this word—“elegance” also comes to mind, but this is not to suggest Eckardt’s writing lacks such—Brian Barone has suggested a “new sincerity”). The recital included music from the past fifteen years, the earliest work being Meditation (2000, performed with vocal lyricism and complete assurance of craft by Jeremy Lyons, guitar) to “Invocation,” from Rise. Rise is, for me, an utterly essential work to hear in gaining access to Adashi’s output. Premiered in Washington, D.C. on the tragic night of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, Rise is a testament to the ongoing civil rights struggle throughout the country. Its ending movements include some of the most cathartic and heartbreaking uses of C Major I have ever heard. (You can hear portions of it again at the St. David’s Evensong in Honor of Martin Luther King). The Invocation, with its diatonic repetitions in the piano (performed by recent New World Symphony fellowship recipient John Wilson) and lyrical ‘cello line (originally for flugelhorn, but transcribed especially for Peter Kibbe), set the stage nicely for the works to come.
Other compositions included Nina (2011), Adashi’s tribute to Nina Simone, and performed by Wilson. The work builds from an angular, minor-mode line, through to ascending prismatic chords which open a “jam” section that includes piano-percussion, before ascending again into high, soft clusters, the dissonances seeming more effervescent than biting. Lament, for soprano and guitar, performed by Lisa Perry and Jeremy Lyons, was also a tribute, this time to Nicholas Maw, a teacher whom Adashi and I shared at Peabody, and whose world-encompassing lyricism (and British candor) was an inspiration to all who worked with and learned from him. Perry and Lyons’ performance was utterly synchronized, summoning the Orpheus-like text in lilting lines and a heartbreaking ascendancy of chords.
Adashi’s emotional and musical sincerity were most on display in the world premiere work of the evening, amo, dedicated to a child of friends; their offspring lived for only twelve hours, and was born on the night Adashi was sketching the idea used in the piece, a downwards flowering of tearful clusters. At the close of the work a child in attendance at the back of the hall was heard to say to his adult: “I love you.” A fitting sincerity to close the concert.
There is much more in store for the LUNAR ensemble and the Baltimore War Memorial this season. In addition to their upcoming Happy Hour performances, LUNAR is also performing on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Pulse series on November 12. Upcoming events at the War Memorial include the Exit 17 Trio and an art song program entitled “Confessions.”