Notre Dame offers notes of distinction Sound idea: Listening to young composers' works this weekend proves to be music to his ears.

February 26, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As part of its centennial celebrations, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland sponsored a composers' conference this past weekend that included symposiums, workshops and two concerts (Friday evening and Saturday afternoon) of new or relatively recent music in LeClerc Auditorium.

The last piece on Saturday's program brought genuine distinction to the college's honoring of itself: The world premiere of "A Browning Garland," a setting for soprano and piano of Robert Browning's poetry.

It was composed by the Washington-based Anthony Stark, a member of the college's faculty and the director of the conference, and it was among the finest song cycles this listener has heard in several years.

Stark -- he is most familiar to local audiences as the managing director of the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore -- has taken excerpts from four poems about love and set them with intelligence, skill and emotional generosity that matches those qualities in Browning's verse.

Like Benjamin Britten or Dominick Argento, Stark, who studied with the latter, is a composer with genuine literary sensitivity. This in itself is not enough to be a first-rate composer of art songs -- Schubert set poets and poetasters alike -- but Stark has a rich lyrical gift, he understands and loves the human voice and writes brilliantly and inventively for the piano.

This substantial, 20-minute setting never seemed a moment overlong and it captured the dangerous recklessness both of the poet's subject (obsessive love) and of his verse. The superb performances of soprano Pamela Jordan and Ernest Ragogini played no small part in helping "A Browning Garland" to capture the heart.

On Friday evening, which was devoted primarily to younger composers, two intriguing pieces involved tape and video: Reynold Weidenaar's "Long into the Night . . ." (1995) and Anne Deane's "Positive Thinking" (1993).

In "Long into the Night," Weidenaar uses historical photographs, drawings and recordings, to help re-create a peculiar event in New York City history: a harmless accident that made music emanate from a manhole, stopping traffic on Broadway on Oct. 21, 1907. With the live music supplied by pianist Nanette Shannon, "Long into the Night . . ." acquired the charm of watching an accompanied silent movie.

"Charming" is not a word that characterizes Deane's "Positive Thinking." In this piece for flute, prerecorded tape and video display, Deane assaults the emotions with power and intelligence.

The California-based composer has re-mixed a taped reading by poet-composer John Chance and combined his words, distorted in all manner of affecting ways, with an equally powerful text for the flute -- which was well-performed by Nancy Stagnitta. This was music with an ideological component.

An index to Deane's distinction, however, is that this listener, who failed to read a program note and thus misunderstood the composer's argument, was still moved, even shaken, by the music.

A completely different experience was provided Saturday afternoon by Caroline Mallonee's "Two Partner Pieces for Quartet" for flutist (Stagnitta), violinist (Celeste Blase) and two cellists (Rachel Young and David Shumway).

This Baltimore-born composer is only 20, but this piece -- parts of which date from her 15th year -- shows enormous potential. "Two Partner Pieces" not only justifies its unusual instrumentation with its dark elegiac tone, but also shows an almost Schubertian gift for achieving beauty of utterance without appearing to labor at it.

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