Dominant 7 Composers’ Recital – 12/07/12

by Sam Hoyland

The Composers’ Recital on December 7, 2012 at Queens College’s LeFrak Concert Hall seemed to me to be a very successful concert. Created by Dominant 7, a group of graduate and undergraduate Queens College student composer, it brought together a variety of ensembles (including various choruses, a saxophone quartet, and a violin / contrabass duo) to play nine pieces by seven different, budding Queens College composers. The audience, which was made up of friends, peers, and family, was an extremely warm one, perhaps encouraged by the fact that all the pieces were tonal and in an accessible style.

The concert began with a saxophone quartet piece by George Weisman called Mad Clowns. Although the program said that the piece was meant to depict clowns, it reminded me just as much of crowded city traffic (I couldn’t help thinking of Mondrian’s painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie) because of its quick tempo and the practically continuous accented rhythms of the saxophones. When I talked to Weisman after the concert, he said that many people were reminded of a city scene as well and that when he first wrote the piece, he was thinking of the same thing. For most of the piece, the texture was clearly homophonic with one saxophone playing a melody while the other three instruments accompanied rhythmically, articulating a chord progression with a slow harmonic rhythm. At one point in the middle, the soprano saxophone had a short unaccompanied solo that provided some contrast with the jazzy rhythms. Towards the end of the piece, the saxophones played glissandi adding to the clownish, frenetic character of the piece. It ended with a long chordal glissando played in parallel by all four instruments.

The second piece of the concert was Any Color You Like by Michael Lofaso for flute, cello, piano, and percussion (one player, who switched between vibraphone and bongos with hard mallets). This, along with the violin / contrabass duo (see below), was one of my favorite pieces of the concert. The harmony and melody throughout sounded Impressionist, almost jazzy, but also abstract. Because of the instrumentation and harmony, the piece came off as fairly light and somewhat spritely. Formally, the music seemed to wander from idea to idea, giving it an improvisational feel that was never unsatisfying as it complimented the Impressionist / jazzy feel. The piece started with complex chords rolled by the piano alone, followed by short melodic fragments played by each instrument in turn. But after those initial gestures, the rest of the music was a polyphony of constantly-changing groups with the flute and cello often pairing off against the piano and vibraphone.

Next came Britlin Losee’s setting of Ave Maria for a women’s choir a cappella. As with her later piece (discussed below), the music was totally diatonic with simple harmony and clear cadences. Interestingly, for one section, Losee used the “s” sound in a word to create an aural space reminiscent of the music of Eric Whitacre, a composer she cited as an inspiration in the program notes. About a third of the way into the piece, a short section featured a soloist accompanied by chords hummed by the rest of the choir. It ended with a significant section on the word “Amen” in which higher voices were built up over the lower voices.

The fourth piece of the concert was Anthony Izzo’s set of parodic variations on the tune “Deck the Halls” by TBB choir and piano. To add to the Christmassy feel, many of the singers wore winter scarves and sweaters. Although the program notes describe the piece as variation, the form was at times lost on me, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether there were aspects of fugue or imitative counterpoint in the setting toward the end. The piece started with a short introduction that introduced the two halves of the tune (“Deck the halls with boughs of holly” and “Fa la la la la, fa la la la”) letting them partly overlap before moving to a minor-key setting for comic effect. The second variation (?) was played by piano alone in a Rachmaninoff-like style but with a thinner texture. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the balance of the singers throughout the piece, which may have been caused by the strange fact that some of the tenor parts were sung by women.

The fifth piece, Duo in G minor, was the longest of the concert (about 20 – 25 min). It was admirably played by violist Sergey Prokofyev and its composer, Andrew Whitbeck, on contrabass. Duo comprised three movements in all: a long, fast first movement in sonata form; a short, slow second movement; and a long, mainly fast third movement that may have been in sonata form as well, which followed immediately after the second without break (attacca). As would be expected, melodies were mainly in the violin accompanied by the contrabass, though sometimes their roles were reversed for variety. The style of the piece frequently reminded me of Schubert, though there were a few tunes that sounded like something that Shostakovich could have written. All said, though the music was somewhat old-fashioned, it felt quite authentic throughout, and I was very impressed by the skill of the first-time composer. The first movement was especially impressive, as Whitbeck was quite adept at handling sonata form, leaving me very satisfied with the arc of the music. The second movement was perhaps in a more Classical-period style with slow, legato melodies in the violin. Unfortunately, the last movement was less satisfying than the first, as Whitbeck seemed to linger on a cadential section a few minutes too long, making me think of the long cadential ends of a typical Beethoven sonata but without Beethoven’s rhythmic power to give it interest.

After a ten minute intermission, a trio of bass clarinet, piano, and marimba played masters-degree student Ely Moskowitz’s Djinn Trio, a piece in four movements. The music was rhythmically fluid and had a distinctive minor modality. Combined with the unusual instrumentation, this gave it a Middle-Eastern feel that is perhaps the reason for the word “Djinn” in the title. Unfortunately, though each movement was interesting to listen to, a major problem with the piece overall was that all four movements were in similar tempos and all (except the first) lasted about 4 – 5 minutes, making it a bit monotonous. To give it a little variety, in the last two movements, the bass clarinet came to the fore, seeming somewhat like a soloist amongst the three instruments. Along these lines, the last movement included a cadenza-like passage for the bass clarinet.

The seventh piece of the concert was Britlin Losee’s Te hiszel bennem – A Hungarian Love Song for soprano, viola, and piano that set a Hungarian text (“Te hiszel bennem” means “You believe in me” in Hungarian). Like her first piece, the music was quite diatonic and used simple triadic harmony. In fact, the relationship between the voice and viola reminded me of choral music with the viola playing smoothly-moving, long notes to accompany the singer. To some degree, the style reminded me of pop music (like Celine Dion) that might be called romantic with a small r.

Next was a setting of Psalm 23 for women’s choir and piano by Vanessa Carmela. To me, it was quite strange to set the psalm with women’s voices as I associate the text with funerals. Somehow, women’s voices do not seem right for a funereal tone, though the music itself was not funereal at all, and Carmela described the piece as focusing on the contrast between hope and mystery in the program notes. The psalm setting was straightforward throughout with a mainly homorhythmic texture that resulted in the words being much easier to hear than a typical choral music although I still needed to use the lyrics in the program notes to follow along.

Finally, the last piece on the program was George Weisman’s slow and solemn setting of a poem by Clark Ashton Smith called The Cherry-Snows for mixed choir a capella. The poem describes cherry blossom petals falling to the ground, an event that apparently resembles snowfall. Weisman started his piece sparsely with short, descending melodic lines repeated multiple times by two of the singers, obviously represent the cherry blossom petals falling to the ground. Later in the piece, Weisman used another simple effect: a short, ostinato figure made of four eight-notes that made the music sound like a whirlwind. The piece ended was a chorale-like section, then a repeat of the descending lines, and finally a melismatic setting of the word “glitter” in the last lines.

Overall, the concert was very impressive, especially considering that it was all put together by a group of graduate and undergraduate students (Dominant 7) with, I believe, no financing from Queens College itself, except providing the concert hall free of charge. Although the compositions themselves were somewhat uneven – I liked about half the pieces a lot, while the others sounded much more amateurish – the warm audience and good playing made it a lot of fun.