Showcasing music that's new now and music that once was

Critic's Corner//Music

The 150th anniversary of Peabody's founding marked with works from 1857 and 2007

February 01, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

A century and a half ago, George Peabody wrote a letter to friends in Baltimore outlining an institute that would include a music conservatory. Peabody had the money to back up his vision of a place where things old and new could be taught, absorbed and showcased.

The Peabody Institute remains such a place. On Tuesday night, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding, faculty artists offered a meaty program called "New Music, Now and Then." Two pieces from 1857 framed one from this year, each providing a different take on what it can mean to be new.

If George Peabody had happened upon the Piano Trio in G minor when it was fresh from the pen of Bedrich Smetana, he might have been startled by the seemingly improvisatory violin solo at the start, the protracted development of themes, the constant shift of dark and light moods. The piece still sounds pretty fresh (if not always well-organized).

The Serenade in D major by Johannes Brahms would have seemed old even when it was new, given that it takes its structure from Mozart and steers carefully along a conventional harmonic path. But that conservatism struck some early listeners as unappealingly modern and complex.

McGregor Boyle, a member of Peabody's computer music faculty, has effectively poured new music into a slightly old bottle with his piece for cello, bass and electronics called The Gray Man. For some time, composers have dabbled in mixing live performance with something artificial - pre-recorded tape in years past, computer-generated interaction more recently.

Smetana and Brahms could never have grasped the concept of a shadowy, nonhuman musician. In an age of cars telling divers, "Turn right in 100 yards," it's not such a big deal, but the use of computers in concert halls poses intriguing possibilities.

The Gray Man was inspired by the tale of a ghost who haunts the Carolina coast before hurricanes; those who see him are spared property damage (couldn't he have temporarily relocated to the Gulf Coast region in 2005?).

Boyle's computer program sends out sounds that suggest moans, winds, things that go bump in the night - all in cool surround-sound. But, as the onstage musicians make their intense, partly improvised contributions, the computer also interacts with what they're doing, repeating some of their notes, mutating others.

It's easy to imagine storm surges and their aftermath in the intense ebb and flow of the piece; it's even easier just to surrender to the aural mass.

In Tuesday's premiere, cellist Michael Kannen from Peabody's classical side and bassist Michael Formanek from its jazz department collaborated potently, while Boyle manned the laptop. The work seemed a little too long for its own good, but the final moments rewarded with an almost explosive impact.

Anna Elashvili (violin), Alan Stepansky (cello) and Marian Hahn (piano) gave a firmly cohesive, impassioned account of the Smetana trio.

The genial Serenade was presented in a reconstruction of its original 1857 nonet version. (Brahms destroyed it after revising the score for chamber orchestra.) With few exceptions, the nine collaborating faculty members gave a performance that was as technically polished as it was warmly, colorfully phrased.

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