World Premieres Inspire a ‘Sleepy’ Recital

09/12/2016

 Malin Bång, Tom Johnson, David Remnick, Kate Soper, Brett Dean, Christopher Cerrone: Tim Munro (flute), Kate Soper (soprano), Face the Music, Mary Ellen Stebbins (lighting design), Miller Theatre at Columbia University, New York City, 10.11.16. (KG)

Malin Bång – Alpha Waves (2008)
Tom Johnson – Counting Duets (1982)
David Reminick – Seven Somniloquies (2015, New York premiere)
Kate Soper – Only The Words Themselves Mean What They Say (2011)
Brett Dean – Notes from the twittersphere (2015, world premiere)
Christopher Cerrone – Liminal Highway (2016, world premiere)

Flutist Tim Munro had more than a little to prove with Recounting, his first solo concert in New York City. Taking the Miller Theatre stage, he had the opportunity to show—if not tell—what was behind his decision to leave the Grammy-winning, Chicago-based ensemble eighth blackbird after nine years, and to show his mettle for the future. If the result was a step away from his people-pleasing old haunts, the concert contained pleasures of a more particular sort.

An immersive premiere by Christopher Cerrone (at the end) gave the concert its focus, revolving around the idea of sleep. “I love the idea of transitions,” Munro said from the stage, and he could have been speaking about drifting off to sleep, or his own passage from ensemble member to solo performer—or indeed the state of a nation left reeling by the election two nights prior. “There can be complications. We learn more about ourselves. As a country we are about to enter a period of transition of our own.”

Munro wasn’t interested in exploring a placid and restful sleep. Rather, he chose works about sleep-talking, anxiety, and odd mental states, all under the name “Recounting,” as if referring to sheep circling overhead while the night grew darker.

The concert opened with one such unusual sleep state by the Swedish composer Malin Bång, Alpha Waves, which Munro described as “a machine in the hospital breathing for you.” Quiet sounds blown through the flute and heavily amplified fell into humming and a display of instrumental dexterity (the first of several) that was staggering—no dancing sugarplums here.

Members of the young new-music group Face the Music performed Johnson’s 1982 Counting Duets, a set of maddeningly overlaid patterns without singing or instrumental accompaniment—sequences of numbers read aloud and in rhythm, designed to circle around and meet as the cycles sync. Munro had frequently performed the duets with eighth blackbird, but the talented young Face the Music crew proved to be a great foil. While not lacking in ability (the one little slip came from Munro), it was hard not to look at Johnson’s exercises differently when done by kids—something of a schizophrenic Sesame Street.

Munro called David Reminick’s Seven Somniloquies “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to play,” before facing that music in its New York premiere. The composer wrote it for his wife, who talks in her sleep. Transcribing her unconscious utterances, Reminick gave them a musical setting that calls upon the flutist to sing while playing. “No hat – mud will take care of me,” Munro intoned again and again in a surprisingly strong tenor, the repetitions submerged under breathy flute trills and curious near-rhymes (“I don’t want a face kick / I don’t want a baby picture”), along with virtuosic instrumental accompaniment. When he sang “I can’t be the number three,” it seemed almost a refutation of Johnson’s work—again, not in the restful state of drifting off to sleep but in the sometimes anxious state of being asleep.

Soprano Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say (2011-12) didn’t relate directly to the concert’s theme, but it was easy to imagine the characters having a sleepless night afterwards. Soper wrote the piece for flutist Erin Lesser, her bandmate in the Wet Ink Ensemble, and Munro’s concert marked the first time Soper has performed it with a male, turning the dialogue into a confrontation. The tense, domestic scene was abetted by a floor lamp and the sonic setting enhanced by generous reverb.

Brett Dean wrote Notes From the twittersphere (for piccolo) on the occasion of Munro’s leaving eighth blackbird, and as an attempt at reclaiming the Twittersphere for the birds. A world premiere, it was Webernesque in its brevity, and in its upward exclamations

Cerrone’s gentle duet—a world premiere commissioned by Miller Theatre—made a strong conclusion and was the evening’s highlight. Electronic tones—a soundbed, perhaps—emanated from the back of the room like a lullaby. As if encouraging the audience to drift off—the calm at the end of a frightful night—the result plumbed the subconscious, a realm less peaceful than one likes to imagine.

Kurt Gottschalk

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