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Present Music: Ince, Gorecki, Birtwhistle, Daugherty

Kamran Ince: Evil Eye (1996)
Henryk Górecki: Aria: Scena -- Scena Operowa, Opus 59 (1987)
Harrison Birtwhistle: Bach Measures (1996)
Michael Daugherty: Le Tombeau de Liberace (1996)

Present Music Ensemble
Paul Haugan, tuba
Philip Bush, piano
Terry Smirl, percussion


One thing I've always liked about the Milwaukee-based chamber music group Present Music is their readiness to take risks in programming. It's rare to hear a work you already know, even if you do know other works by a given composer. The recipe creates a certain sense of adventure for an audience, because often you can be surprised and delighted by fresh discoveries.

On the other hand, it isn't always a delight, and in the case of composer Kamran Ince, it wasn't a surprise either. Present Music has offered several Ince works before, each time leaving me quite underwhelmed, but Evil Eye (1996) -- true to its title, perhaps -- evoked real annoyance. During its eight minutes I searched in vain for signs of anything other than feckless, arbitrary disorder. The composer's notes describe the piece as "rough, without delusions, in your face, unashamed." That's not entirely wrong: it was rough, it was in my face, and perhaps I'm even deluded. But I think a little shame on his part might be a very good thing.

The concert opened with Henryk Górecki's Aria: Scena (Scena Operowa), Opus 59 (1987), scored for tuba, piano, and percussion. The playing (Paul Haugan, Philip Bush, Terry Smirl) was very fine. I thought the piece worked. The net effect was like stretching a film of rubber so that thirteen seconds of intense melancholy would take thirteen minutes to experience.

The evening's largest work and its musical high point was the fine English composer Harrison Birtwistle's arrangement of eight chorale preludes by J.S. Bach into a suite called Bach Measures (1996). Written for a choreographic collaboration, the piece resolves incredibly complex orchestrational problems with impressive skill. Unfortunately, the large instrumental group had major intonation and ensemble problems, marring the performance.

Michael Daugherty's Le Tombeau de Liberace (1996) gives more memorial weight to the entertainer than to the musician. It's basically a four-movement piano concerto, respectful but also parodistic. I heard Liberace play on the radio long before he became a superstar; he was then a real musician. What he became is another matter; this piece highlights the latter aspect. Perhaps such discomforts are endemic to the American musical scene's emphasis on surface glitz and the illusion of value rather then the genuine article.

In terms of performance values generally, Present Music seemed less thoroughly prepared for this concert than all the others I've heard. The pitifully small audience applauded warmly, however.

Isthmus, January, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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