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Present Music: Torke, Hagen, Ung
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Program
Michael Torke: The Yellow Pages (1985); The Blue Pages (1995); The White Pages (1995)
Daron Hagen: Everything Must Go! (1995)
Chinary Ung: Spiral I
Michael Torke: Adjustable Wrench (1987)

Performers
Present Music Ensemble

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Old Music Hall was about three-quarters full for the season-opening concert by the group Present Music Thursday evening. The concert featured three world premiere performances by two Milwaukee composers, Michael Torke and Daron Hagen. Another Torke piece and an interesting work by Chinary Ung rounded out the program. The three premieres also established the soundness of the Present Music Audience Commissioning Project, which funds new works by soliciting gifts directly from audience members and asking composers to accept whatever can be raised in that fashion.

Torke augmented his 1985 piece The Yellow Pages (yes, it refers to the phone book) by adding The Blue Pages and The White Pages in 1995; the latter two works received their first hearing, serving as second and third movements together with the earlier composition. The 19-minute suite is scored for piano, violin, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and piccolo. The music is dominated by rhythmic intensity in all three sections; although the middle movement is more relaxed, it too was rhythmically taut. Nevertheless, there are strong lyrical elements in all three sections, especially a kind of bluesy chordal interlude in the middle section. The final movement is built up of elaborate small cells played in very rapid succession, and indeed the whole work is technically demanding.

Torke's 1987 composition Adjustable Wrench concluded the program. It has many elements in common with the 1985/1995 suite of pieces, especially the predominance of rhythm. But, perhaps as a result of hearing both works on the same program, its devices did not sound as original or as stimulating. Rather than commanding attention by a certain inner imperative, a quality I think all good music exhibits, this work seemed something of a passtime or diversion, leaving one to wonder whether its existence was in some sense artistically necessary.

Hagen's Everything Must Go! (1995), the other world premiere, posed the same issue for me: does the music exist because something in it justifies its being heard, or is it just an exercise in compositional brilliance (which this was) requiring no further justification? While not denying that such ideas are not fully mutually exclusive, I felt the latter quality dominated this large-scale work, which requires 14 players. It displayed to my ears a distinct anti-snob quality, which I liked, but in the end seemed mostly a pastiche, throwing together elements of string quartet, jazz improvisation, big-band sound and a Gershwin/Tin Pan Alley aspect, much of it tinged with a kind of eastern flavor.

A more directly eastern influence pervaded Ung's Spiral I. Acoustically evoking bells and gongs in an imaginative and technically brilliant manner, Ung, who is Cambodian, gave us a work of great subtlety and invention, scored for piano, cello, and percussion and involving considerable extended playing techniques. It was a bit frantic, especially for Terry Smirl, the percussionist, who single-handedly commanded a huge armada of instruments.

Present Music continues to be a force to be reckoned with on the Wisconsin scene. Their organization is solid, they are relatively well funded, and the programs are invariably interesting, a steady stream of new invention and enjoyment.

Isthmus, September, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson




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