Potent Premieres

When we arrive at Irvine Auditorium’s Amado Hall a few minutes late on a misty November evening, we feel pretty confident about our chances of getting a seat. Most chamber-music recitals—especially mid-week, new-music recitals—attract the sort of crowds you’d find at an undergraduate poetry reading.

But this is no ordinary recital. It includes two premieres: the first U.S. performance of Canadian pianist/composer Marc-André Hamelin’s Passacaglia for Piano Quintet and the world premiere of Jay Reise’s “Powers That Be” for String Quartet and Piano, both to be performed by the Cassatt String Quartet, Penn’s ensemble-in-residence, with Hamelin himself at the keyboard.

Reise is the Robert Weiss Professor of Music Composition and director of undergraduate studies at Penn, and his piece, commissioned through the Barlow Foundation, was composed with Hamelin and the Cassatt in mind. Both the pianist and the members of the quartet are long-time friends and colleagues of Reise, and he has written separately for each in the past. But Hamelin and the Cassatt have never joined forces as a quintet until this evening, despite an obvious affinity for one another that will reveal itself over the course of the recital.

The place is packed. We have to step over briefcases, wet umbrellas, and countless pairs of sneakers and high heels to reach a couple of empty chairs in the back, where we crane our necks for a glimpse of the performers.

Named after the Philadelphia-born impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, the all-female ensemble has been on campus for several days, visiting classes, coaching student ensembles, and even rehearsing the Mendelssohn Octet with a hand-picked student quartet for a performance later this spring. Earlier, they hosted a four-hour open rehearsal in this space, during which the public was invited to drop by and watch them in action, working alone and with Hamelin and Reise.

The passacaglia is a dance form popular in the Baroque period, and Hamelin’s 12-minute offering turns out to be an interesting programming choice in light of the frenetic final “Tarantella” movement of Reise’s quintet. Alternately lyrical, violent, romantic, and agitated, Hamelin’s Passacaglia is a series of melodic variations around a fixed bass line. It is an engaging piece of music, always accessible, yet filled with rhythmic and tonal complexities. It’s also a good showpiece for the quintet’s sometimes ferocious, always voluptuous sound, and elicits a standing ovation from the crowd.

Reise’s “Powers That Be” is a large work in three movements, an ambitious contribution to the contemporary piano-quintet repertoire. It is dedicated to the composer’s parents, who—along with Hamelin’s wife, Philadelphia-based soprano Jody Karin Applebaum—are among tonight’s audience. The title, says Reise, refers to extra-human forces that “surround us, stimulate our imaginations, and can even control us.”

This music is demanding, both conceptually and technically, but the artists are up to the challenge. The first movement, “Alchemical Soundscape,” begins in traditional sonata form and progresses with eponymous alchemy towards a dark, burlesque scherzo. First violinist Muneko Otani’s fingers are a blur along the fingerboard, and rosin flies. In the contrasting “Troubled Sleep” movement, an extended rhapsody, the mood shifts into a pensive exploration of tone and color; the sound is simultaneously rich and transparent. It is here, even more so than in the devilishly tricky rhythms of the fast movements, that the ensemble’s musical integrity becomes most apparent.

And then the tarantella. Reise wrote “Dance Fever, 1374” after reading a treatise on the medieval dance manias also known as St. Vitus’ dance. The printed program contains a reproduction of an old woodcut in which frenzied citizens dance naked amid graves in a German churchyard. This movement is indeed a pyrotechnical frenzy. The musicians, who have been focusing on this piece for weeks, pull it off with aplomb. One half-expects the audience to tear off their clothes and dance in the aisles—but, no: this is Philadelphia. Instead, they leap, cheering, to their feet.

—Karen Rile C’80


©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/06


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