Note: Many thanks to James Young for this guest review. Talented writers and insightful reviewers across the country, like James, contribute much to the Sybaritic Singer and our overall classical music conversations. Read more about James at the end of this post. – Sybaritic Singer
SONAR New Music Ensemble Presents “Child’s Play”
For the past few years, SONAR New Music Ensemble has been attempting to construct an ideal. With the opening of their 5th season they have created it: the ‘new-music’ concert as cohesive universe.
The ubiquitous classical music conversation, that is the FUTURE OF, recently took over the Baltimore academic scene. The Future Symphony Institute came to the University of Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute held its own marathon conversation impatiently titled “What’s next for classical music?”
Into this atmosphere, SONAR launches ‘Child’s Play,’ the title of their opening show, featuring an unbroken, mixed together concert program, electronic interludes composed of home movies, a back wall of visual counterpoint to each work on the program, and one sing-a-long.
Colin Sorgi, artistic director, often builds ambitious programs for SONAR: an onslaught of heavy hitters stretching deep into an evening. In the past, the shows have fatigued. Here, it was invigorating. Sorgi achieves this by the simple act of shuffling content.
The concert was framed by one expansive work, David Lang’s ‘Child.’ Its minimalist, development-phobic tendencies offer ‘Child’s Play’ a ritornello around which it may anchor and pivot, a hub from which it could reach out and explore the music of Kaija Saariaho, Charles Ives, Thomas Ades, and Heinrich Biber.
The Saariaho, accompanied by a neon, spinning, sonogram on the back wall, was especially spectacular, featuring the talents of violist Jaclyn Dorr, cellist Alicia Ward, and pianist Choo Choo Hu. Dorr and Ward shined as they deftly navigated the spectralist fireworks, attacking each timbral shift with ferocity. Hu provided a formidable landscape via the upright piano, but I couldn’t help thinking about how Hu’s efforts would be amplified by a 12-foot concert grand. Saariaho also got the division treatment: a few movements on one half, a few welcome movements returning on the other.
Both appearances of the Saariaho were prefaced by recordings of children reading poetry. Specifically, the children were from the Orchkids, an educational music-outreach program coupled to the Baltimore Symphony. The naïve poetry reading offers an instant, humanizing access point for the music to come. ‘Child’s Play’ was full of such occurrences. In most cases, the musicians of SONAR appeared on-screen themselves, presented in decades old home movies: opening presents, riding a mattress downstairs, sculpting an egg holder… followed by shouts of “IT’S AN EGG HOLDER!” Each eagerly anticipated interlude, crafted with technical care and precisely edited, forced intimacy, forced that a connection be made. Each was welcome.
My favorite of these interludes came near the end: a sing-a-long featuring “I’m a little tea-pot.” And, happily, yes the audience participated! The moment led directly into an Ives violin sonata played with great lyricism and force by Lauren Rausch, a needed respite between Saariaho and Ades. The Ades, ‘Catch,’ is an early work of the composer’s, and it features a roaming clarinetist, here played by Jennifer Hughson. Hughson provided a strong balance of humor and virtuosity to the piece, keeping up with the violently luminescent gestures played by Sorgi, Ward, and Hu. The work was a success on all counts.
Oddly, where the concert faltered was in the Lang, providing the most tiring moments for the show in the first half. I got the feeling when presented by a seemingly unending stream of pitches that the endurance of the players began to wane. The innervation was fleeting, however, entering into second half, where the Lang gave the concert its best musical moments.
In one such moment of inspiration, the final work on the program was preceded by a final home movie, this time of Alicia Ward as a young child playing a recital. As we watched the video, the real, present Ward began to tune for the final Lang, a cello solo accompanied by various keyboards. There she was in the past, on the big screen; here she was now, years later, tuning for her next performance, an entire universe protracted onto the black stage of the Baltimore Theatre Project.
SONAR is back for season five.
About James Young
James Young is a composer of music. His work has been described as fearless and clever, strange and direct. Fueled by both classical and pop sensibilities, James’s music is often rhythmically driving and emotionally charged. He is motivated by a desire not only to express, but also to collaborate with other talented artists, finding new audience and venues to connect with.
James has composed for has been performed by the Baltimore Symphony and the University of Louisville Orchestra. He has played and constructed music with the avant-garde improvisational group, Bonecrusher. His work ranges from solo piano to full sonic installations. Most recently, he has written music for the Baltimore based Occasional Symphony to accompany the film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.