December 13-20, 2006

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Slanted and Chanted

New Music Works' Phil Collins turns up a new species of counterpoint

By Scott MacClelland

No banana slugs slithered out of the rainforests and streams that invaded First Congregational Church on Dec. 3, when pioneering music anthropologist Phil Collins turned up the newest species of counterpoint. Collins' support group included composers Hyo-Shin Na and Jack Body, and such performers as soprano Sheila Willey and New Music Works regulars, harpist Jennifer Cass, flutist Teresa Orozco-Petersen, clarinetist Ann Lavin, pianist Mickey McGushin and string players Cynthia Baehr, Chad Kaltinger and Aria de Salvo.

The soaring precincts of the church, known locally--and appropriately in this case--as Primo Congo, resonated to the whispered subtleties of Hyo-Shin Na's Ocean/Shore 2, of 2003, an 18-minute quartet for clarinet and strings in movements suggested by immigrant stories of Koreans in America. The composer eschewed Western-style vibrato in favor of slides, pizzicato and other characteristics of Korean music, while discrete movements represented such states of mind as loneliness, anger and exuberance. In one case, cellist de Salvo recited a narrative that made clear the frustrations of being English-challenged in a pointedly arrogant culture.

Getting its U.S. premiere was New Zealander Jack Body's Rainforest, an arrangement of six original Pygmy songs for flute, harp and, in one case, tandem vocalizing by Willey and Orozco. The piece, composed earlier this year, was enchanting in its infectious melodies and syncopated rhythms, and further cements the relationship between Collins and the distinctively original Body (who has asked Collins to attend a New Zealand symposium next year.) In one movement, harpist Cass added tissue paper to her strings to create a buzzing effect.

Collins himself was represented in a brand new harp solo titled Stream, a six-minute adventure of discovery wanting from Cass only a bit more punch. As composer, Collins sounds freer and more spontaneous here than in previous works. McGushin, who has taken over the Ariose Singers from founder Leta Miller, presented his 16 voices in two choruses from Meredith Monk's science fiction opera The Games. Astronaut Anthem was a vocalization that began humming, then expanded to an open-voiced crescendo punctuated by rising solo glissandos. Panda Chant II called for the singers to step, side to side, and clap hands, with some solo vocal punctuations. Wordless, both flowered sensually.

In 1990, Polish composer Henryk Gorecki memorialized Michael Vyner, late of the London Sinfonietta that had long championed the composer. Gorecki has a bipolar reputation. On the one hand is scintillation and brilliance, such as Kleines Requiem für eine Polka of 1993. On the other, is the eternally restful Symphony of Sorrowful Songs of 1976, which first made his name in the United States. On this program, and in the latter category, Good Night (the Vyner piece) calls for piano, flutes and tam tams, and solo soprano, who, in the closing minutes (the piece lasts nearly half an hour), sings "Good night ... flights of angels sing thee to they rest" (from Hamlet), with interminable repetitions all round. The performers acquitted themselves handsomely, but not enough to overcome the work's inherent indolence.

If you like slow and meditative, go with Arvo Pärt.

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