Ran's music fills an evening with power, grace

March 16, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Concerts that consist entirely of the work of a single composer are rarely entirely successful affairs. There simply aren't many good composers whose work is varied enough to provide interest over the length of an evening.

If you doubt this, try to listen sometime for two consecutive hours to the chamber music of Johannes Brahms.

It was all the more remarkable, therefore, that last night's concert of the music of Shulamit Ran in Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Conservatory was so entirely engrossing.

Ran, who won the Pulitzer Prize and the Friedheim Award in 1992 and who is currently composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony, is this year's Randolph S. Rothschild Visiting Professor of Composition -- a position that means a weeklong residence working with student composers at the conservatory.

The Rothschild Chair does not usually include a concert, but the enthusiasm of several members of the Peabody faculty for Ran's music resulted in one.

It's easy to understand such enthusiasm. Ran is a magnificent composer with a range that varies from the playful "Children's Scenes" and "Mirage," which opened and closed the concert, to the powerful and searing "Apprehensions" and "Excursions," which occupied the central positions on the program.

One should never use the term masterpiece for a work one has just heard for the first time. So let me say this: The force with which Ran's "Apprehensions" (1979), a setting in three movements and an epilogue for soprano, clarinet and piano of one of Sylvia Plath's late poems, hit me on first hearing has been equaled only twice before by 20th-century vocal works -- by Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" and Britten's "Illuminations."

In this piece, which was magnificently sung by Phyllis Bryn-Julson and played by clarinetist Loren Kitt and pianist Mark Markham, Ran seizes the poetic rage of Plath, in which language becomes shrieking gesture, and swallows it whole. This piece calls upon the soprano to sing, to intone and to inhabit the mind of someone who is clearly insane.

The adjective "beautiful" is not among the words one would apply to "Apprehensions" -- but "fascinating," "terrifying" and "profoundly moving" are.

Three of the most impressive characteristics of "Apprehensions" and of Ran's music, in general, are a sense of purpose or destination, a sense of an ending. She is a composer who really knows how to bring individual movements and pieces in their entirety to successful conclusions with a sense that it is never a note too long.

This was certainly true of "Excursions" (1980), which was performed by pianist Seth Knopp, violinist Violaine Melancon and cellist Margery Hwang.

Like "Apprehensions," this was another gut-wrenching piece that was driven by logic and by what seemed a deep need to explore the dark places of the soul. The playing of the three musicians -- both solo and ensemble -- was terrific.

Among the other pieces on the program were "Inscriptions for Solo Violin" (1991), a piece that suggested one of the solo sonatas of Eugene Ysaye in its accessibility and wit and that was brilliantly played by Melancon, and "Children's Scenes" (1966) for piano four hands, in which the then-teen-age composer pays a playful homage to Schumann, Debussy and Prokofiev (among others) and which was played with considerable charm by Marian Hahn and Knopp.

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