Adding sights to some of Concert Lab sounds

Music Review

April 14, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The present and, perhaps, the future of classical music came together briefly Tuesday night at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It was an interesting sound - and sight.

This presentation by Concert Lab, a partnership between MICA and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians, included three compositions, two of them premieres. Passages from one were reprised, accompanied by computer-generated animation.

Aural and visual combinations are not new. Orchestras have been known to match highly descriptive music - Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite, say, or Strauss' Alpine Symphony - with video or still photos.

But advances in computers keep stretching the possibilities for bi-sensory experiences, as shown here with contributions from MICA's systems and programming class.

The musical guinea pig was the serene middle movement of The Catherine Wheel, a 2002 work by David Ludwig. With clicks of a mouse, MICA professor Jamy Sheridan set in motion various visual responses to the chant-flavored music.

The most striking contribution suggested a black-and-white kaleidoscope, its crystals expanding and contracting to the haunting sounds, like a stained glass window come to life. Abstract, real-time graphics in living color and a segment involving a hand slowly changing positions were also shown.

Ludwig's composition, written for BSO principal oboist Katherine Needleman, is a winner.

Violin, viola and cello create a foundation of dark harmonies and minimalism-flavored rhythmic motion to launch the first movement; the oboe sings lyrically above the action. Soulful melodic lines, feathery accompaniment patterns and imitative devices enrich the second movement. The energetic finale is punctuated by slashing string chords and brilliant oboe riffs.

The performance by Needleman, violinist Ellen Orner (Concert Lab's founder), violist Jonathan Carney (switching from his usual violin) and cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn was vibrantly expressive, if not always tight.

Chia-Yu Hsu's Moods for oboe and string quartet, dedicated to Needleman and premiered here (violinist Christian Colberg filled out the ensemble), combines lyricism and mild dissonance in a taut package. Bartok-like rhythms and a sort of skewed urban beat in the finale add interest. The performance didn't sound fully settled, but revealed the work's strengths.

Landscape - after Yves Tanguy, a solo violin piece by Benjamin Lees written for and straightforwardly played in this premiere by Orner, conjures up the surreal realm of Tanguy's paintings in a progression of melodic flurries, rhythmic shifts and coloristic effects. It would make an obvious candidate for an optic project.

The evening's limited demonstration of visuals couldn't settle all the questions about how or why they should become part of a concert experience. They'll always run the risk of devaluing, not enhancing, the sonic art.

How composers, visual artists, musicians and audiences grapple with the philosophical issues involved in multiple-genre events should prove as illuminating as the events themselves in the years ahead.

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