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Contemporary and classic concert mediates between the clarinet, flute and piano

By Adam Lamper

Section: Arts

October 23, 2015

This past Sunday, Oct. 18, as part of Brandeis University’s 2015-2016 Concert Series, flautist Jill Dreeben, clarinetist Todd Brunel and pianist Elizabeth Skavish took center stage with their performance, “Contemporary with Classic: Music with Flute, Clarinet and Piano.” The night brought many surprises, including two premier pieces, and an energetic group of artists that would be sure to excite any audience.

The concert kicked off with McDonald’s premier piece, “Three Sketchbook Items.” McDonald, a professor of music at Tufts University, presented the three pieces as a set because of their contrasting styles and proximity within his sketchbook, hence the piece’s title. This show-opening piece displayed the diversity of the performer’s skills, employing techniques that ranged from the standard trill to flutter-tongue, as well as exemplifying their wide range of pitch. Like the majority of the pieces that night, a fair portion of the music was centered around atonality, and was vaguely reminiscent of Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, adding to the overall sense of surrealism of the piece.

The second and last premier of the night was film composer John Kusiak’s, “Film Noir for Flute, Clarinet and Piano.” Unlike the opener, this piece’s tonality centered around the keys of E minor and E major, which, to Kusiak, evokes the color black. “Although I don’t have true synesthesia, in the case of E chords and keys (along with a few others), I’ve always had a definite color association,” he said. Kusiak incorporated many stylistic elements from his film scores into this piece. However, he remarked that he did not intend to emulate any specific film noir music, but rather stated that “the darkness in the piece is evocative of the genre.” The haunting ostinatos of the song surely added to the envisioned darkness of the piece.

The final song of the first half of the performance brought in the “classic” aspect of concert with Sergei Prokofiev’s “Sonata No. 2 Op. 94.” This four-movement piece starred Dreeben, who also happens to teach private flute lessons here at Brandeis, accompanied by Skavish on the piano. The piece explored a wide range of tempos from andante to allegro con brio, and even expressed Dreeben’s excellent use and control of the various timbres of sound that can be produced with the flute.

After intermission, there was yet another solo titled, “Child’s Play,” exclusively starring Dreeben. Toronto-native composer John Armstrong, a close friend, had written this piece. He stated that he wrote the five-movement piece for Dreeben in order to “explore the various shades of innocence evoked by children, and, at the same time, explore the capabilities of the solo flute,” as she was expecting her first child, Simon. “This piece was written 23 years ago for my son,” Dreeben said as she introduced the piece, “and I’m playing it tonight in his honor.” The piece then goes on to emulate aspects of childhood through movements with names such as “First Steps,” “Curious” and “Mischievous.” As a direct result of Armstrong’s attempt to demonstrate the true range and diversity of the flute, this piece acted as a culmination of various techniques presented throughout the night, most notably Dreeben’s ability to bend the notes, and her use of a contemporary technique of whisper or whistle-tones.

The last piece of the night was “Barn Dances,” written by one of America’s most-performed living composers, Libby Larsen. A series of four abstract compositions, each drawing its name from a dance step used in cowboy dances, “Barn Dances” was by far the most diverse and entertaining piece of the night. With energetic, fluid and semi-atonal allegretto all in one movement, transitioning to a slow, melodic waltz in another, it was the perfect way to end the performance. The most appealing movement of the four, however, was titled “Divide the Ring,” and features themes of a genre that Larsen refers to as “Cowboy Swing.” The piece opened up with a Scott Joplin-esque piano, and continued to flip-flop between the abstract and ragtime genres, until, eventually ending in the traditional E7, A7, D7, C blues, chord progression.

Though it provided more “contemporary” than “classic,” Sunday’s performance was nothing short of musicianship at its finest. Coming up next in the 2015-2016 Concert Series is the “Eric Chasalow 60th Birthday Birthday Concert,” featuring leading presenters of chamber music, Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. This event will be taking place this upcoming Saturday, Oct. 24, in Slosberg Recital Hall.

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