Peter Stevenson, Executive Director of the Civic Music Association, welcomed the audience in Sheslow Auditorium of Drake University on Saturday night declaring, “Fifth House Ensemble has a vision for chamber music that involves storytelling, graphic novels, and of course music.” Murmurs from some nearby audience members suggested that the performance, which mixes the high-calibre music making of Fifth House Ensemble with projected slides of Ezra Claytan Daniels‘ stunning drawings, was an entirely new adventure and perhaps a bit avant-garde in their experience. However, Fifth House Ensemble was superlative in their ability to craft an unforgettable evening of sight and sound with Black Violet Act II: The Great Exodus of the Tamed.
The first of the three acts to the story of Black Violet premiered in the fall of 2009, but each act stands alone as an evening-length performance. The story, with historical consulting from Kristen Klebba, takes place in 17th Century London during the Great Plague of London, in which one in five residents died from the infamous bacterial infection. The second act of the story jumps in following the heroine Violet, a young black house cat, as she is forced to venture out into the world after she believes her owner to have abandoned her. She has already-formed alliances, both positive and negative, with other characters that the audience pieces together seeing only this middle act of the story. Ezra Claytan Daniels’ highly graphic illustration style provides a lot of information for the eye while keeping the phrasing of the text on the slides quite simple and straightforward even with the 17th Century English text influences.
It is this straightforwardness with text and highly visual artwork coupled with the precise musicality from the instrumentalists that highlighted the most important factor of this performance: curating the distance of attention. It isn’t immediately noticeable how important this influence is in this program. Cellist Herine Coetzee Koschak and pianist Jani Parsons initially draw the audience into a close focus of the aural world of the performance with the spellbinding Ernest Bloch “Prayer.” Then, movements of the meticulous John Harbison “Quintet for Winds” and Sergei Prokofiev‘s highly characteristic “Quintet Op. 39” matched with slides from the Black Violet graphic novel direct the listener’s attention into a big picture survey both visual and musical. This type of programming could find detractors in those that want to hear the development of a multi-movement work in its original formation. Yet, the insightful programming heightens other emotional and intellectual connections to the themes inherent in the work. It is also clear that the musicians in Fifth House Ensemble have an intense commitment to musical excellence and enjoy making music together on stage in the way that they cue and check-in visually. Then, the interludes (without the visuals) including Caleb Burhans‘ piano solo “In Time of Desperation” featuring Parsons and especially the emotionally charged Dmitri Shostakovich “Piano Quintet Op. 57 Movement II: Fugue” draw the collective attention to an extremely fine point. Each of the five movements of the Shostakovich performed by Charlene Kluegel, Rachel Brown Clark, Clark Carruth, Herine Coetzee Koschak, and Jani Parsons were exquisite moments throughout the evening. With so many ensemble members, it is difficult to mention them each by name, but their work as soloists and as a whole is impressive.
It is evident with this performance that Fifth House Ensemble has a clear vision for themselves in the new music domain. While graphic novels and storytelling are an excellent outgrowth of their creative strengths in the Black Violet performances, it is their steadfast commitment to high-calibre musicianship that continues to lie at the heart of that vision.Full disclosure: In 2013, I was a voice fellow at the Fresh Inc Festival in Kenosha, WI. I worked with many of the Fifth House Ensemble members who are the faculty and organizers of the Fresh Inc Festival.