KC Jukebox: “New Voices” not always great ones

Curated by composer-in-residence Mason Bates, Monday special event at the Kennedy Center, highlighted the good, the bad and the ugly.

Scene from April 18, 2016 edition of KC Jukebox. (Photo by the author)

WASHINGTON, April 20, 2016 – Monday evening, Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates presented the final installment of his eclectic “KC Jukebox” series.

Staged once again in the Center’s top-floor Atrium space, Monday’s program, entitled “New Voices, Old Muses” was centered on an interesting musical idea, featuring newer compositions by known and up-and-coming contemporary composers that reinterpreted and/or reimagined how today’s musical instruments and styles might address old or ancient music forms.

The five composers on the roster included Edmund Finnis, Anna Clyne, Molly Joyce, Donnacha Dennehy and Mr. Bates himself, who also hosted the event and provided the electronica for his own composition as well. Instrumentals and vocals were provided by an ever-changing ensemble of performers and singers, with two of the larger ensembles being conducted by Donato Cabrera.

As with previous KC Jukebox events, the Atrium space was transformed with subdued, mostly rose-colored lighting and special effects, including plenty of dry ice-generated mists no doubt intended to suspend time and place.

Unfortunately, Monday’s program was not nearly as successful as others we attended, and also seemed to attract the sparsest audience to date, no doubt largely due to the fact that none of the composers on the menu, save for Mr. Bates, was well-known. This remains a problem in many concert halls today.

Traditional audiences learned in the 20th century that they probably wouldn’t like the compositions of their contemporaries, so they often found something else to do when new music was in town. This is clearly not true today as our younger classically oriented composers around the world would clearly like to get that audience back, including their own peers.

The problem is, even back in the glory days of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic Eras, any new music was a hit or miss affair. The vast majority of Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, Chopin’s, Liszt’s and Wagner’s competitors over the years now currently reside in that proverbial dustbin of history, fairly or not. Reality dictates that only music that’s really impressive, distinctive and appealing will still be around a decade or more later.

For that reason, any program built exclusively on new or nearly-new compositions and composers is going to be inherently uneven. It’s only over time that audiences and critics will eventually sort things out.

Which gets us back to Monday’s KC Jukebox. In addition to some technical issues that also plagued the previous edition of this series—a sometimes muddy sound system and poor lighting for the larger ensembles—the music on this latest program also proved to be wildly inconsistent. Two of Monday’s compositions—Anna Clyne’s “As sudden shut,” and Mason Bates’ own “Bagatelles for String Quartet and Electronica” were the clear and consistent highlights of the evening. “In Situ” by Edmund Finnis and “Sit and Dance for Baroque Cello and Electronics” were somewhat less compelling. And what in many ways seems to have been intended as the evening’s “big piece,” Donnacha Dennehy’s “That Night Come” was, to be frank, a loud, aimless, crushing bore.

Performed by a string quartet with the composer assisting with electronica, Mr. Bates’ “Bagatelles” launched the evening with a pleasant and at times traditionally melodious start, with each of these traditionally brief little pieces having a character all its own. Each piece carried its own little meditation or story, and all flowed seamlessly from one to the next, expressing various moods while anchoring their modern expressions in this very old musical format.

While a bit overly long, Anna Clyne’s “As Sudden Shut” was one of those suite pieces that force you to sit up and notice. Featuring a trio of singers doubled by a trio of flutes and supported by a large and unusual ensemble, including the obviously puckish addition of that instrumental bête noire, the contrabassoon along with harp, percussion, harpsichord and strings, “Sudden Shut” was an extended and occasionally bizarre riff on one of Emily Dickinson’s typically weird and imaginative poems:

A door just opened on a street—
I, lost, was passing by—
An instant’s width of warmth disclosed,
And wealth, and company.

The door as sudden shut, and I,
I, lost, was passing by,—
Lost doubly, but by contrast most,
Enlightening misery.

As Ms. Clyne’s composition unfolded, the trio of sopranos initially delivered Dickinson’s verses in a tight, generally traditional harmony, carrying on an extended dialogue with the trio of flutes. But as the piece progressed, these interactions became more frantic and disconnected, as if the poet-speaker’s melancholy and desperation were growing ever more frantic, a discord increasingly underscored by the grotesque thumping of that contrabassoon.

Perhaps the idea here was the notion that the speaker’s reality was quarrelling with her spiritual fatalism. Whatever the case, this was a think-piece as well as a musical one, an interesting blend of tradition, form, instrumentation and expression, quite original and at times almost startling.

Not so successful were the compositions of Mr. Finnis and Ms. Joyce, although the performance in the latter by cellist Rachel Young, who was accompanied only by electronica, came off rather well.

Mr. Dennehy’s “That the Night Come,” as I’ve previously noted, was in my opinion not a success. Whether this was due to the composition itself, its delivery, problems with the sound system or all the above is difficult to say.

This extended composition was divided into several parts, each focusing on a poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats who, according to my interpretation of Mr. Dennehy’s projected voice-over introduction, the composer doesn’t exactly admire. Neither, actually, does this writer’s Dublin-born wife, who also expressed her puzzlement as to the choice of poems. “These are really some of his worst,” she said, wondering why they’d been chosen.

Whatever the case, when any poem, even one that might not be a prize-winner, is set to music, it’s the entire presentation that needs to be evaluated. The problem with this musical excursion proved to be two-fold.

First, the music itself, written for a substantial chamber ensemble, including an accordion and an electric guitar, sounded like an ugly jumble, with the accordion—an unusual choice—being underutilized while the electric guitar seemed entirely out of place.

Second, Yeats’ verses, sung by mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway, did not come across well at all. The words were often entirely drowned out by the ensemble. But even when they weren’t, Ms. Calloway seemed to strain and shout to get her part out, an effect worsened by the fact that her voice was amplified by a system that tended to distort it on the high end.

In the end, the sound that was output was simply awful, and, at least from this writer’s vantage point, very few of Yeats’ actual words could be clearly heard, whether by accident or design. As a result, the performance didn’t show off either the performers or the vocalist at their collective best.

It’s entirely possible that most of the trouble here was caused by the sound mix. Even so, however, this unpleasant piece put a damper on what might otherwise have been a fairly successful evening of hopeful new music.

Then again, as noted at the beginning of this review, a great many new compositions fail to succeed. For that reason, it’s still an interesting challenge to attend concerts like this one. Almost inevitably at some point, one of these new pieces will turn out to be a stunner—one that any of us will be thrilled to have heard before anyone else encounters it.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17