A curious vibe

A few months ago, writer Justin Davidson drove through the rain to the Brooklyn Lyceum to review Eastman conductor Brad Lubman’s performance of new music with the Wordless Music Orchestra. Davidson describes a scene where “the dress code is scruffy and the vibe is one of curiosity rather than reverence.” Rochester’s new classical music scene thrums with the same energy, particularly when Eastman students disregard conventions of the classical music culture and strike out for new territory.

Curiosity drove me to last week’s premiere of “Abeyance” by Steve Wanna. The piece won Ossia’s first International Composition Prize, and on the night of the premiere, the center section of Kilbourn Hall was almost full with mostly twenty-somethings, many carrying gig bags. Speakers were set up in the corners of the hall. Before the concert started, Ossia president Scott Perkins announced that the performance was dedicated to one of group's former board members, Eastman student Gretchen Snedeker, who'd been killed in a car accident.

A small chamber orchestra opened with Matilda Hofman conducting “Xi” by Unsuk Chin, a kind of music-with-found-objects piece that layered tones over electronically generated whooshes. Frenetic quivers punctuated lengthy, ponderous phrases. “Xi” shifted musical tones as slowly as tectonic plates on the ocean floor. I started to zone. Then, out of the primordial sludge, wind and string players began plunking, stroking, and blipping, and the piece ended with an expectant silence, like a humid pause before a spring rain. I read later that “Xi” is the Korean word for “seed,” and the piece was meant to unfold as a “mechanically organic process from the [germinal] human breath.”

Ossia president Scott Perkins conducted the song cycle, “Drei Volkstexte,” Op. 17 by Anton Webern. When he wrote these snappy, far-flung songs in 1924, the composer had little concern for the limitations of the voice and instruments. Soprano Jamie Jordan approached the Webern with daring bravado and a light touch.

A set of wind players walked out in matching black and green outfits to play Edison Denisov’s 1991 “Blaseroktett,” a layered, atonal, flowing work that spiraled out ribbons of close harmonies. The players trilled, fluttered, and descended, chasing each other like coursing swallows. Reuben Blundell conducted. I thought I detected a few intonation problems at times, but the harmonies were so tight that it was hard to tell. I liked “Blaseroktett’s” delicate, Ibertian melancholy and Wagnerian pulse. The players burbled and murmured. It ended in a gigantic trill.

After intermission, two players walked onstage for the premiere of “Abeyance,” winner of Ossia’s 2007-2008 International Composition Prize. Mathew Barber picked up a recorder and began playing freestyle, following directions on the composer’s unconventional notation. Percussionist Baljinder Sekhon tapped, dinged, and pounded in response, triggering the random playback of pre-composed sound files, including crackling, plosives, clicks, and snaps. It was a mesmerizing, spontaneous conversation that paused, restarted, and continued for several minutes. After Barber and Sekhon exchanged a look, the ritualistic piece faded into silence. “Abeyance” received a standing ovation. The composer, Lebanese-American Steve Wanna, waved in the semi-darkness from a computer console in the back of the hall.

I liked "Abeyance" so much that I left before Ossia played the last two pieces. I wanted to savor the feeling of reverence for what can be created with nothing but sound.