Sunday, November 7, 2010

What a pleasure (and an unusal one at that) to hear six viola da gambists playing together "in tune." With six (and sometimes seven) gut strings, the adjustable frets that occasionally move when they shouldn't, viols are notoriously difficult to play with pleasing intonation. To produce notes "in tune" is difficult enough. To have six of them playing 16th century English fantasies together with beautiful intonation is more than six times harder; it is nearly impossible. But a fortunate Milwaukee audience learned at UWM's spacious Zelazo Center last night that it is not impossible because they heard the English Viol Consort, FRETWORK , do it with aplomb.

Individually, the members of the ensemble are wonderful and expressive players. But even better, when they gather together, their collective work is wonderful and expressive as well.
I came to last night's concert expecting to hear what 6 part viol ensembles usually do to pass the time; play 15th and 16th century English consort music: the works of Thomas Lupo, John Jenkins, and the sublime John Cooper. I did hear that (actually the old music was a bit more obscure, dwelling mainly on some pieces by John Parsons), but there was much more music to the evening. Orlando Gough (b. 1953) used these old pieces to punctuate his own large work THE WORLD ENCOMPASSED.

The structure of Gough's music was simple, ingenious, and ultimately moving. The hour-long work, written speciffically for FRETWORK, alternated back and forth between first Gough's music and then 16th century music. The programatic intent of this chronological flip-flopping was to portray Sir Francis Drake's 1577 voyage around the world.

Inserting quotes of pre-existing music into a contemporary piece is not a new idea; in general, I am not a fan. Usually the results sound affected or clumsy, or both. One comes away from such experiences unhappy -- especially if the quoted music is better than the new music it finds itself in. The listener wishes, under such circumstances, that composers of the new pieces would be better off not reminding us of their short-comings by quoting music superior their own in their music. Usually one wishes this, but not always. Charles Ives, for example, was an exception; he could do it beautifully (listen to to "GENERAL WILLIAM BOOTH ENTERS HEAVEN). The good news is that Orlando Gough, judging by last night's piece, is on Ives' side of the aisle. He does it beautifully as well.

There are several reasons for this. The main reason (again using THE WORLD ENCOMPASSED as a measure) is that Gough is a fine composer. He has a flamboyant musical imagination and he clearly knows how to write for viola da gambas. (I suspect that he must play one himself). Most important, one comes away from his music convinced that he has musical gravitas. In short; he has something important to say.

And it certainly helped that FRETWORK was the performing ensemble of this technically demanding and intricate work. They have the chops for it; not many groups do. They played the piece with understanding and affection. "Affection" is not strong enough a word. "Passion" is more apt.

This is the second musically significant musical occasion I have attended in Milwaukee this month. A few weeks ago, the spectacular French-Tunisian guitarist, Roland Dyens was here, and now comes Fretwork; playing new and challenging music that left us in the audience entranced and musically wiser. If this keeps up, I might well forget that I am living in the place that not only gave birth to the Harley motorcycle, but is also, so I have heard, the third largest producer of sewer 'manhole covers" in the world.

For a few moments last night, when I closed my eyes, I imagined that I was not located on the east side of Milwaukee River, amongst the roar of the Harleys, but rather, on the east side of the River Thames.

That is what fine music, and a great performance of that fine music, can do. It might not be able to move rivers, but it can do something even more miraculous.

It can move people.

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