Sunday, February 2, 2014

Soaring with SONAR

Sonar, Baltimore's musical ensemble devoted to the performance of contemporary music, treated the city to a mystical concert the past week at Theatre Project.  Entitled "Dark Visions,"  the program offered three contemporary works rivaling each other  in their etheral atmosphere and avant-garde sound.

Opening the concert was the string quartet "Ainsi la Nuit" (1976), written by the French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013).  Broken into seven apparently unrelated movements, the composition hauntingly interwove sounds that characterize the dream and the cloud.  The movement titles indicate the vaguely religious mood of this nocturnal piece: "litanies," "constellations," "temps suspendu."  The Sonar string quartet masterfully evoked the impressionist mood of the work, with its distant echoes of Debussy, although at times the squeaks weakened the composition's lyrical undertow.

The second piece was the world premiere of "By the Light of the Stars" by local composer Lonnie Hevia (b. 1970).  This stirring piece was a blend of contrasts.  The opening movement evoked the cold, distant spectacle of the stars while the closing movement turned suddenly jazz-like as the brass and winds of the Sonar ensemble agressively intensified the sound, rhythm, and tempo of the music.  The piano and xylophone performances made an especially strong contribution to the rousing finale.

The revelation of the evening was the performance of Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947)'s odd one-woman operatic drama, "Infinito Nero" (1988), which the composer himself labels an ecstacy in one act.  Guest conductor Robert Baker expertly conducted the Sonar ensemble in this difficult work, full of sudden stops and eruptions.  Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen gave a mesmerizing dramatic and musical account of the strange mystic, Saint Mary Magadelen de Pazzi (1566-1607), on whose obscure religious effusions the monodrama is based.  A controversial visionary, De Pazzi would periodically explode into torrents of ungrammatical words expressing her experience of religious ecstacy.  The following phrase was a typical result: "The Spirit was transforming into blood, understanding nothing but blood, seeing nothing but blood, tasting nothing but blood, feeling nothing but blood, thinking nothing but blood, unable to think anything but blood."  Sciarrino accurately describes his subject: "She did not speak---words actually shot out of her like a machine gun."  His composition begins with a pointlillist movement of semi-sounds, breaths, isolated notes, and semi-words.  The body itself, with its respiration, its sighs, and its semi-retracted phrases seems to give utterance.  The work then builds to a cacophony of words, instrumental counterpoint, and an explosion of passion by Ihnen as her ecstatic embrace of and by a crucified God reaches its apex.

One minor reservation.  The performance of each of the compositions was accompanied by a video in the background.  The video work was colorful and certainly attuned to the particular mood of each piece.  Nonetheless, it tended to distract from rather than enchance the performance.  The austere purity of these ethereal pieces stands on its own. 


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