This new music is good enough to want to listen to again


February 11, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Here's the reason why concerts of new music are usually much less enjoyable than programs of older music: The latter get screened for quality by time. That makes yesterday's concert by the New York New Music Ensemble at the Baltimore Museum of Art all the more remarkable. Three of the four pieces on the program, which was presented by the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore, were genuinely enjoyable and promised to reward repeated listening.

Perhaps the most intriguing was Stephen Mackey's 23-minute "Indigenous Instruments" (1989). In his program notes, Mackey speaks of this piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano as "ethnic music from a culture that doesn't really exist."

The young composer -- he was born in 1956 -- must have his tongue in his cheek. This is music that could only have been written by an American. The elegiac slow movement was filled with echoes of Copland and Bernstein, and the jazzy final one suggested a space-age version of Charles Ives. Although there were several nods in the direction of minimalism, this music spoke with a dazzlingly irreverent, absolutely fresh tone. I suspect (and hope) that we will be hearing much more from Mackey in the future.

Allusions to jazz also were part of the texture of Robert Hall Lewis' "Fantasiemusik II (1978). Lewis, who teaches at Peabody Conservatory and Goucher College, and who is Baltimore's best-known composer of art music, has an undeserved reputation for abstruseness. This short piece in three sections for clarinet and piano is condensed, but it is also lyrical -- Benny Goodman would have been delighted by the clarinet's glissando wails -- and unflagging in its wit.

Just as rewarding was Gerald Humel's "Winter Ghost," which was commissioned by the society three years ago. It is beautifully organized -- the heart-beat motif, which is buried in the busy opening, returns in lyrical simplicity at the end -- and it makes much of the coloristic possibilities of the timbres of the instrumentation (violin, clarinet, piano, cello and flute).

The only bad music on the program was Stephen Wolpe's 30-year-old "Piece in Two Parts," a pointless assault on the ears for flute and piano.

The musicians were conductor Robert Black, cellist Christopher Finckel, violinist Linda Quan, clarinetist Jean Kopperud, flutist Jayn Rosenfeld and pianists James Winn and Edmund Niemann.

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