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Present Music: Paert, Ives, Adams

Arvo Pärt: Fratres
Charles Ives: "The Alcotts," from the Concord Sonata
John Adams: Shaker Loops (1978, 1982)
John Adams: Gnarly Buttons (1996)

Performers (partial list)
Eric Segnitz, violin
Phillip Bush, piano
William Helmers, clarinet
John Adams, conductor


The Milwaukee-based chamber-music group Present Music wound up its Madison season Thursday evening at Old Music Hall with a really wonderful program consisting of works by Charles Ives, Arvo Pärt, and John Adams. Not least of the exciting features was Adams himself, who was on hand to conduct his two pieces.

One of Present Music's great assets is the top-flight quality of its individual players. Arvo Pärt's Fratres is a set of extremely demanding variations for violin, with a tricky but less flashy piano accompaniment. Eric Segnitz handled the solo part with impressive skill while also managing the difficult task of not imitating the recorded performance by the great virtuoso Gidon Kremer. The piano underpinnings were ably provided by Phillip Bush. This was only the second live performance of Pärt's music I've heard in Madison. I had not thought of him as having Minimalist qualities before, but the idea of many variations on a basically simple musical notion does fit with Minimalist canon to a certain degree.

Charles Ives' sprawling Concord Sonata is of course not at all Minimalist. It struck me as odd programming to present a piano solo on a chamber-music event, in this case the slow movement of the sonata, dubbed "The Alcotts." Though by far the simplest part of the larger work, this section is not easy, by any means, and Bush made good sense of its sometimes conflicting or maladroit features.

Typically the audience for Present Music concerts amounts to about half the capacity of Old Music Hall. Doubtless the appearance of John Adams explains a full hall this time. It would be hard to exaggerate the dynamism Adams brought to the performance: he simply exudes energy. His Shaker Loops (1978, 1982) requires an almost unbelievable amount of energy, too, for three of its four movements require enormous endurance at very high speed. Scored for string septet, the fascinating piece embodies the Minimalist idea of relatively static harmonic materials, but unlike the ultra-mechanical gurus of the school like Phillip Glass, Adams' music is lithe, active, and always moving forward.

The final work on the program was Adam's 1996 piece Gnarly Buttons, commissioned by Present Music and the London Sinfonietta. It is a large, three-movement work, a concerto for clarinet and an unusual ensemble including strings, winds and such offbeat instruments as banjo and mandolin. William Helmers's clarinet playing was clean, precise, expressive, and joyful. It's a long way from an easy part. Stylistically, each of the movements gets more involved and convoluted as it progresses. The slow middle movement faintly echoed Gershwin and Stravinsky-style neo-classicism melded together (improbable as that sounds), while the entirely engaging last movement was basically a kind of pop song or a movie score, but on a higher level. Overall the piece was both interesting and fun. Needless to say, it brought the house down with whoops, bravos, and a standing ovation.

Isthmus, May, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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