A Winterson Tale

“Composers in Red Sneakers” present a program of new music by Howard Frazin, David Cleary, Herman Weiss and Beth Denisch – at the Longy School of music, Cambridge, Nov. 3.

by Richard Johnson

All the works in this Red Sneakers program were completed this year, except David Cleary’s sonata (“Ondine,” for solo piano), which dates from l987. Unfunny and amateurish attempts at political satire were a distraction, in a taped introduction from the Composers themselves and a “farce in two brief acts” (not brief enough) by Z’Arts, but the concert itself began fairly well, with Howard Frazin’s song cycle, “Three Songs About Love.” Performed with a bit too much declaration and not enough subtlety by soprano Kendra Colton, wearing a very nice leather skirt, the songs were slight but convincing in their movement from elaboration to simplicity (the third was a cappella). The first poem, by Rainer Maria Rilke, would surely have been better set in German.

David Cleary’ s Sonata incorporated a quotation from Ravel’s “Ondine,” the first piece of the set “Gaspard de la nun,” and was supposedly inspired by the piano works of Ravel and Schubert. Mr. Cleary should listen carefully to “Le Gibet,” the second piece in “Gaspard,” for it contains more harmonic subtlety in any given eight bars than his whole somewhat relentless Sonata. The opening seemed at first like advanced Scriabin (1912 on) but most closely resembled Schoenberg’s harmonic style in his atonal (pre-12-tone) phase, particularly the Stefan George song cycle, “Des Buch der hangenden Garten,” although Schoenberg’s exploration of free chromatic dissonance is much more sensual than CIeary’s. The only resemblance to Ravel was in the third theme, which could also have been inspired by Gershwin. The second movement, ‘Very fast and light,’ greatly resembled the scorrevole passages (wonderful word – you can see the little rodents scurry) of Elliott Carter’s 1946 Sonata. The last two were fairly monotonously dissonant, until near the end the quotation from “Ondine” was a drink of water in the desert (and no, Mr. Cleary, it did not sound in the least like it had been led up to by what came before). Kathryn Rosenbach played the Sonata with much more panache than it deserved.

“Ocean Trilogy” by Herman Weiss for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano, was very well played and had some arresting moments including a brief flirtation with ragtime in the ‘Midday Sun’ second movement but overall seemed too disorganized and fast-changing to hold the attention.

One work stood out

Not so “Sexing the Cherry” (Jordan and the Dog Woman) by Beth Denisch, commissioned and performed by the Arcadian Winds, a personable group (especially George Michael – lookalike horn player John Paul Aubrey) who, with good management, could do for the wind quintet what the Kronos Quartet has done for the string quartet. The four pieces were inspired by scenes and characters in the fantastic Jeanette Winterson novel of the same name. The quintet was joined by Vera Meyer playing glass harmonica, which, if you’ve never seen one, looks like at giant glass carrot turning on a spit, while the player strokes the glass surface with her fingers to produce sounds like you get rubbing the top of a glass with a wet finger. Ms. Denisch also made sparing and imaginative use of percussion, nicely played by James Russell Smith. It was a little hard to disentangle the ethereal sound of the glass harmonica from the earthier winds, except when it was playing solo, but it was a nice idea to use it. The first two movements were bucolic and serene, leading to a syncopated and delightfully stylized blues for the third, and the finale combined the two moods, the instruments one by one succumbing to what seemed like uncontrollable outbursts, while the others continued playing a chorale as if nothing had happened. Beautiful and humorous too, “Sexing the Cherry” (Jordan and the Dog Woman) created a desire to hear more of Beth Denisch.