Willey's 'Five Pieces for Dark Times' shed light in concert of new music

March 27, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

James Willey's "Five Pieces for Dark Times" are good pieces for any time.

This 20-minute piece for chamber orchestra, which was performed last night in Friedberg Hall by members of the Baltimore Symphony and music director David Zinman, takes its title from the 1980s -- an era upon which the composer casts a somewhat sardonic light.

This was most apparent in the insouciant third movement scherzo, in which the composer takes shards of patriotic melodies and suggests the nastiness beneath their good-natured surfaces.

Elsewhere in this music -- particularly in its second and fourth movements -- Willey, who teaches at the State University of New York in Geneseo, paid homage to the personal and emotional hymnody of New England.

This is a beautiful work, with a keening quality that one immediately associates with the adjective "American."

Yet the music also has -- certainly in the scherzo and perhaps in its finale -- an ironic undertow that suggests Shostakovich.

It was played well by Zinman and his players -- particularly by concertmaster Herbert Greenberg in the engaging violin solos and by Joel Wizansky, who played the important piano part with flair.

I feel less strongly about the other three works on this second and last of the orchestra's "Discovery" series, which is devoted to new music.

Lawrence Moss's "Clouds" suggested -- as Zinman himself remarked from the stage -- something produced by cross-pollinating Webern with Debussy. These epigrammatic pieces were elegant but left me with the feeling that I would have preferred listening to either one or the other.

Michael Torke's "Rust" for piano and band demonstrated this young composer's extraordinary fluency with the materials of pop music -- here with the components of the drum tracks of rap songs.

There were moments of interesting-sounding riffs from individual wind instruments, an enormous amount of rhythmic energy and a brilliantly written piano part.

But, as is occasionally the case with this composer, the music, for all its skill, began to suggest stuff best heard in an aerobics class or on a treadmill.

HK Gruber's Concerto No. 2 for Violin and String Orchestra, which was played persuasively by Greenberg, sounded surprisingly tame for this characteristically off-the-wall Viennese composer.

The outer movements sounded somewhat uncomfortable with their borrowed American jazz elements.

The slow movement, however, was beautiful -- a jewel-perfect exercise in Bergian lyricism.

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