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American Century captures '60s discord.

Byline: Jonathan Blumhofer


Worcester Art Museum's Chamber Music Series on Sunday presented a performance by American Century Music in conjunction with the museum's new "Kennedy to Kent State" exhibit. The concert explored part of the rich dimension of American music in the 1960s, showcasing pieces by Roger Sessions, David Diamond, Steve Reich and Leon Kirchner.

With the exception of the Reich, none of the scores might be categorized as "easy listening," yet all received virtuosic, compelling performances that nicely emphasized the "Kennedy to Kent State" theme and proved highly satisfying, and at times revelatory, musically.

Roger Sessions' Six Pieces for Violoncello from 1966 opened the program, receiving an intensely focused performance from ACM cellist David Russell. It's a bleak piece, to be sure, one that seems to revel in an austere nihilism with which one might well associate the late-'60s.

Still, it's not without moments of charm: the third movement, Scherzo, grinds to an almost comic halt, while the fifth movement, Fantasy, presents a series of semi-familiar gestures that add up to an ironically inconclusive whole. The structural and emotional heart of the piece, though, is the central Berceuse, which in Mr. Russell's sensitive hands became a requiem for innocence lost, its fragmented lullaby dissipating into brittle strands of sound.

The afternoon's other solo work, Steve Reich's Violin Phase, dates from the following year. Strictly speaking, it's not a "solo" piece: violinist Gabriela Diaz was accompanied by three recordings of herself performing the score. (A few years ago, the Worcester Chamber Music Society presented a four-violin version of this piece at its annual Summer Music Festival; it was nice to get to hear the original version here.) In place of gloom was brightness and light -- Reich emphasizes the violin's open E string as well as resonant harmonics -- and Ms. Diaz reveled in both the score's color and its rhythmic vitality. There were a few moments when the recorded sound seemed to overwhelm the soloist, but, for the most part, these were few and far between.

Alternating with the solo pieces were two string quartets. The first, David Diamond's String Quartet No. 7, was the third of six quartets Diamond composed between 1960 and 1966. At the time, Diamond was in his late 40s and searching for a musical language that could integrate his penchant for lyricism and traditional forms with contemporary trends that rejected such devices as archaic and irrelevant.

And this quartet sounds like battle music. Echoes of Shostakovich and Bartk abound, though homespun melodic sections reminiscent of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris often interrupt them. The quartet's second movement features an extensive fugue that obsessively emphasizes the interval of a minor second, its effect surprisingly mechanical: what is the point, Diamond seems to be asking, if the expressive end of music is only technical control? Not much, seems to be the reply.

Violinist Katherine Winterstein and violist Wenting Kang joined Ms. Diaz and Mr. Russell for a totally committed and engrossing performance of this enigmatic score. There was a ferocity to the opening contrapuntal section that contrasted nicely with the expansive, recurring songful element, and the concluding fugue was powerfully focused.

The concert's closing work, Leon Kirchner's Pulitzer Prize-winning String Quartet No. 3 With Electronic Tape, was easily the most "far out" piece on the program. In it, Kirchner combined electronic sounds with acoustic instruments that play off of and dialogue with one another. Despite the complex harmonic aesthetic, it's a strongly classical quartet, cast basically in a ternary form and including several recapitulations of melodic and motivic material.

In Sunday's triumphant performance, the ACM quartet and sound technician James Borchers gamely handled Kirchner's hyper-virtuosic writing, providing the score an expansive shape that well augmented the group's collective technical accomplishment, all while making convincing sense of the music's haze of psychedelic textures and harmonies.

Too often audiences obsess over how contemporary music gets put together instead of listening to it the same way we do Beethoven and Mahler, namely, as music. This program -- especially the Kirchner -- didn't allow any such fussing: it required listening to these pieces on their own terms and was a decidedly rewarding experience because of that. Let's have ACM and programs like these in Worcester more often -- this performance was a high-water mark of the local classical music scene's current season.
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Title Annotation:LIVING
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 16, 2012
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