Concert of new music torments the ears


January 24, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

There's a certain kind of concert reviewers dread. You are in utter agony: your ears hurt, your muscles cramp, your seat seems made for a Lilliputian, and, of course, you can't go to sleep. Only one thing gives you hope of salvation: the expectation that eventually you will see the musicians turn to the last page of the score that torments you.

Such was this listener's situation during most of last night's concert by Polaris at Goucher College. Fortunately, the worst came first: Judith Shatin's unspeakably strident "1492" for percussion and piano. This work attempts to cast absolute music into the mold of "political correctness." A program note tells us that "1492" was inspired by the events of that momentous year: Columbus' first voyage, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the invasion of France by Britain's Henry VII. It is -- to use PC terminology -- about invading or stealing the space of the "other" -- here represented by the percussion and piano. "The music," we read, "crackles with excitement as the players plunge into each other's territory."

In actuality, this means the awful din created by the pianist abusing the insides of the instrument, even striking the strings with a stick, and by a percussionist given carte blanche. Instead of "1492," this work could have been called "Rape" -- because that is what it did to the ears. For those of us old enough to remember the TV ads of 30 years ago, it was simply "Excedrin Headache 101." The unfortunate pianist was Lisa Weiss; the energetic percussionist was Barry Dove.

"1492" was followed by another work by Shatin, "Gabriel's Wing" for flute and piano. This was another piece with a pretentious program that went nowhere, albeit at a somewhat more humane decibel level. Weiss, a talented pianist deserving of better material, was joined by the gifted young flutist, Lisa Cella.

The first half of the program clattered to an intermission with Leslie Bassett's Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano (1980), another work that made the skin crawl. Here the problem -- aside from the paucity of ideas -- was one of texture. The music for violin (Gregory Kuperstein) and clarinet (Geoffrey Flolo) was often so close together that the piece often sounded like a drone in five short movements.

Judith Lang Zaimont's "Stone" (1981) for solo piano, enthusiastically performed by Clinton Adams, was one of the those "Brand X" works that featured storm trooper-like percussive attacks on the keys and a good deal of monkey business in the instrument's innards.

On this program Robert Muczynski's modest but superbly crafted Sonata for Flute and Piano (1965) stood out like a battleship among a fleet of dugouts. Its neo-classical textures, jazzy lyricism and vigorous rhythmic drive were made even more persuasive in a fine performance by flutist Cella and pianist Adams.

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