Dancing in the Checker’d Shade

by Gerald Carpenter

MUSICAL GASOLINE: The opening concert of the UCSB music department’s fall season will star guest artists Duo Nuovo (Terry Rhodes, soprano and Ellen Williams, mezzo-soprano), with pianist/composer Benton Hess and cellist Stephen Reis in supporting roles. Bearing the somewhat deceptively austere title, 20th Century American Music, the concert takes place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 7, in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall at UCSB.

The program consists of selections from the duo’s two CDs, To Sun, To Feast, and To Converse and Grand Larsen-y (the latter devoted to the music of Libby Larsen), from works they have commissioned, and from Terry Rhodes’s far-reaching work as a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In one combination or another, Rhodes, Williams, Hess, and Reis will perform two songs about women named Margaret (“To a young child,” “Merry Margaret”) by Timothy Hoekman; Chant by Richard Faith; three selections from Beloved, Thou Hast Brought Me Many Flowers (“Liebeslied,” “Do You Know,” “Music, When Soft Voices Die”) by Libby Larsen; five settings of Calamity Jane’s letters to her daughter Janey, 1880-1902 (“So Like Your Father’s,” “He Never Misses,” “A Man Can Love Two Women,” “A Working Woman,” “All I Have”); the “Color Duet” from the opera Dreaming Blue, also by Larsen; two selections (“Older Woman Blues,” “Andromeda Rag,”) from Irreveries from Sappho by Elizabeth Walton Vercoe; and Atrocities (“Nothing But the Truth,” “Rhapsody on a Theme,” “Question I,” “Facing the Facts,” “Question II,” “The Sensuous Woman”) by Benton Hess, from texts by Judith Viorst.

I have given the program in full in hopes of intriguing you, not driving you off. (Who would not be at least mildly interested to hear what Calamity Jane would have said to her daughter by Wild Bill Hickock?) Thanks to the Internet, I have been able to listen to a good deal of this program, and if not the selections themselves, at least what I take to be representative pieces by the composers. If this is representative of the compositions coming from the academy these days, then we have clearly undergone a sea change into something rich and strange. Until fairly recently, the academy was ruled — in totalitarian fashion — by ruthless and unyielding serialists who seemed to utterly misunderstand what Schönberg and company were trying to achieve. Then, a decade or two ago, it all changed.

From the UCSB concerts I have heard in the last year or so — by Jeremy Haladyna’s ECM, Jon Nathan’s Percussion Ensemble, and others — and from the music I heard in the course of researching this column, the old musical project of direct communication between hearts and souls has been revived. I would say it is not a moment too soon.

These performers, female and male, are obviously dedicated feminists, and much of the music on this program is delicate and sensitive — without becoming, as the French would put it, précieuse — and these are qualities we often associate with femininity. But these composers and performers also claim the right to be raunchy and coarse, forceful and empirical, witty and acerbic. What I hope they are saying is that, five centuries of male hegemony notwithstanding, music runs on estrogen as well as it does on testosterone.

All of the composers represented on this program — Hoekman, Larsen, Walton Vercoe, and Hess — would reward further research and wider listening. More than that, they suggest, by the sheer quality and abundance of their music, that they are but the tip of a great and shimmering iceberg. Tickets to 20th Century American Music are $12 general, $7 for students, and will be available at the door.

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