When Leaders Stop Listening: review
From The Examiner
Those in Orlando’s niche market for local art music know it’s no secret that Timucua White House is the place to be. The Glazer family has celebrated music by opening their doors to the community for 15 years, and last night a very full house shared the experience of concert number 600. The occasion: Central Florida Composers Forum’s annual recital, presenting the best of contemporary classical music by local composers for small ensembles and soloists.
The program glistened with variety and brimmed with talent from composers and performers alike. Timucua’s generous host, Benoit Glazer, wrote a special fanfare for the 15th anniversary of the open house tradition. The theme advances in contrapuntal fashion, bouncing from trumpet, to horn, to trombone, and is self-referentially built on 15 notes – Glazer told us – for 15 great years of music. Short and boisterous, it launched the evening in a frolicking mood.
From Daniel Saylor’s Ornette Coleman-inspired Eventualities, to Eric Brook’s Bartókian Six Sketches for piano, the program boasted forward-thinking solo piano music that is short and accessible, while framed in a modern context; in other words, the composers have something to say and they get their message across without getting mired in maneuvers best left to past composers. The dreamy sequence of Eventualities is rooted in music by the great saxophone player and becomes a cohesive whole that feels at home in the piano. Brook’s Sketches feature alternating tempos that switch from a bouncy opening theme in the fourth movement, to a particularly moving hymn-like penultimate movement, with deeply sustained chords.
The music for solo flute was the most stylistically and technically interesting in the program. Saylor’s Character 1, which may or may not be a 21st century reimagining of Debussy’s Syrinx, features tongue fluttering and percussive effects. Sun Mi Ro’s wonderful Three Invocations for Solo Flute, a major highlight of the evening, is a carefully constructed exploration of the wind instrument, cast in a thoroughly engaging idiom. The composer shared in her introduction that the theme of death and loss of a loved one hangs as the backdrop for the piece; the solemnity of the long, unpredictable melodies of the first and second movements carry an aura of sadness.
The tension is exquisite, and the technical demands thoroughly engaging. The composer had the good fortune to have the score brought to life by the incredible local flutist Nora Lee García, from the Bach Festival Orchestra. With quasi-improvisatory lines in the first movement, she explored unusual tonalities through fluctuations in pressure along the column of air, and in the way wind is blown across the mouthpiece. The third movement alone was worth the trip to Timucua: some of the most impressive music for flute I’ve heard, it is constructed on a Korean theme, the composer informed us, which takes off with rapid-fire fluttering. Skillful extended techniques are employed ingeniously – not just as a showoff device – such as half hissing/half blowing across the mouthpiece, resulting in a wild and reedy panpipe timbre, and percussive effects on the keys, among others. Three Invocations really sets a standard for modern flute music.
A thoroughly engaging piece, unique in the program for its sound and atmospheric conception, was Thad Anderson’s Within. Written for quartet of tuned metals with recorded narration about the wonder of American national parks, the piece uses space and ambiance to communicate meaning. The interplay between all four instrumentalists, as they softly struck their tuned metal pipes, built up to gentle cascades of sound that enveloped the listener. The subtlety of this composition style, best employed in atmospheric music for percussion ensemble, depends more on the timing and coordination between performers than on individual technical display, and it worked especially well on Within.
With When Leaders Stop Listening, the final piece of the evening, by the inventive composer Keith Lay, the Central Florida Composers Forum branched out to collaborate with three Cirque du Soleil mimes. A nod to vaudeville music and slapstick comedy, Lay’s concept piece deals with something we’re all familiar with: hierarchical systems in corporate America.
“I want people to enjoy our poking fun at chain-of-command societal structure: to find humor in the feelings of powerlessness we often find ourselves in at work, in every level of politics, bureaucracy, church, school,” writes Lay in his website journal. The music shares the same instrumentation and similar rambunctious character of Glazer’s fanfare, but in Lay’s piece, each of the instruments represents a character and has an onstage mime counterpart: The trumpet music represents the Tycoon, the highest in the chain of commands; the horn represents the Supervisor, the middleman between those who push the buttons, sign the papers, and move the millions and the average working class; and the trombone represents the lowly Worker, the hardworking blue-collar laborer.
The music coexists with the action and is almost dependent on it; the effect of either mimes or brass trio would be really diminished without the other. The music is coordinated with the action in such a way that the instruments become their characters, and the trio collaboratively paints a tonal picture of the action, which is described in overheard projections. When Leaders Stop Listening is a fun throwback to small theater acts of the 20th century with a concept that still rings true in today’s hierarchical companies and workplaces.
Lay has a variety of work under his belt that draws on different instrumentations, unusual performance spaces, different purposes, and original concepts. A look at his ‘Distance Music’ project at Lake Eola in downtown Orlando, or at his piece for EWI, orchestra and electronics, should give you an idea of what kind of thing he imagines, and does. This is the composer who critic Anthony Tommasini from The New York Times called “a composer to watch for,” following a 2004 performance of his piece for violin and orchestra On the Playground, at Alice Tully Hall. Looks like Tommasini wasn’t kidding.