Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Fickle Judge

To help wrap up our coverage of June in Buffalo 2011, we're pleased to welcome guest blogger Daniel J. Kushner, reviewing the June 9 concert with Signal and guest violinist Irvine Arditti. Daniel is a music critic whose work has been published by Opera News, The Huffington PostNewMusicBox, and Symphony, among others.  His vivid and insightful writing can be found at and Though his subject matter ranges widely, he most often writes about the burgeoning musical region in which classically-trained musicians and artists from the world of indie rock are finding common ground. Here follows Daniel's review. 

The Fickle Judge
By Daniel J. Kushner

June in Buffalo is a festival for the new music cognoscenti—a welcome destination for some, an alienating locale for others.  But new music sprawls itself out over a vast landscape, and great variety can coexist even with pieces of comparable aesthetic value.  The festival’s June 9 concert, featuring the New York-based chamber ensemble Signal led by conductor Brad Lubman, exemplified this truth.

The program began with David Felder’s 1990 work Journal for chamber orchestra.  Signal communicated with vibrant poignancy the sonorous, cataclysmic evidence of fear made audible, of some unspoken yet inescapable conflict.  Within the composition, melodies are not shaped and sheltered by phrases, but are rather splintered into three and four-note shards, and then dispelled into the ether.  If Felder’s Shamayim—a 2009 collaboration with filmmaker Elliot Caplan performed earlier in the week at the festival—felt cold and clinical, Journal exudes an emotional, reverberating warmth that doesn’t circumvent Felder’s arresting harmonic sensibility, but instead speaks through it.  The work is at times lush and lyrical, even while possessing a thin, fragile texture capable of some impending devolution—hinted at toward the outset—that never comes. 

Featuring a smaller configuration of Signal aided by solo violinist Irvine Arditti, Brice Pauset’s highly gestural and expressionistic Vita Nova (2006) evinced the atonal priorities so readily embraced in many compositional circles of academia.  While certainly intriguing, the piece seemed destined to retreat from my recollection into oblivion.  But why?  Clearly the composition was well constructed, with a keen spatial sense of orchestration and containing proven techniques of modern articulation, including the ingenuous effect of strumming the string instruments with guitar picks.  Its lack of readily discernible melodies is not in and of itself grounds for dismissal.

But if melody does not implant itself in the ear, some other compositional (component(s) may need to take its place—an alluring succession of harmonies, or a novel polyrhythmic device—to bridge the chasm between performance and memory (I took with issue with Hilda Paredes’s Ah Paaxo’ob of 2001, which closed the concert, for similar reason).  One doesn’t even necessarily need to remember a single note of the composition, but rather the response it elicited from within.  Ultimately, the hard reality is that it comes down to the decision of a manifestly fickle, yet unerring judge—emotional resonance.

Fortunately, György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto (1969-1970) exemplified the atonal aesthetic at its most vibrant and engaging—from the bleary, circular phrases in the woodwinds to the crystalline dizziness of the harpsichord, to the ominous trills in the violins.  Each sonic occurrence seemed to impart some mystical coded meaning.   In the moment, Chamber Concerto struck me as more focused, less visceral yet more palpable, more ethereal yet less distant than the works I had heard earlier in the evening.

Was my response the effect of a placebo?  Does a piece by the venerated Ligeti immediately deserve more respect?  Perhaps vain pride would have me answer, “Yes.”  But, in the interest of being as much of a new-music-hipster as possible, the answer could just as easily be “No.”  In the end, I was drawn in by Ligeti’s use of technical proficiency through such musically volatile means, to achieve such emotionally immediate ends.

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