Mesmerizing Vistas and an Intriguing Visit from Anna Thorvaldsdottir
Thursday night at the Miller Theatre, chamber ensemble Either/Or delivered a rapt, riveting performance of recent works by hauntingly individualistic Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as part of Miller director Melissa Smey’s eclectically fascinating Composer Portrait series. To characterize Thorvaldsdottir’s work as stillness punctuated by agitation is overly reductionistic, but that’s part of the picture. Her austere, earth-toned vistas often evoke the work of both Gerard Grisey and Henryk Gorecki, but with an even more stripped-down focus. The ensemble opened the concert with a site-specific work, the American premiere of the new 2013 piece Into – Second Self with kettledrums to the right and rear of the audience as well as onstage with twin trombones, a smaller drum kit perched on the left balcony, horns in back. It was tremendous fun, in the best way a surround-sound piece can be, but grounded in Thorvaldsdottir’s signature juxtaposition of quiet and disquiet. Close harmonies from the trombones hovered and lingered, the drums’ simple rhythmic motives leaping from one unexpected corner to the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes with a droll touch, sometimes menacingly.
One, from 2008, a duo piece for piano and percussionist, worked an Art of Noise spy movie minimalism, pianist David Shively alternating feverishly between the keyboard and the inside of the piano, long resonant tones giving way to a walk or two, harplike versus sustained timbres steady and then reaching a calmer plateau. In this story, the spy slips away.
Ro (“serenity” in both Icelandic and Chinese) seemed sarcastic early on as the strings and low winds bustled apprehensively before it reached a similarly calm plateau and remained there, lush and enveloping. Tactillity, for percussionist and harp, featured Zeena Parkins snapping menacing, spaciously placed low notes that anchored ambient washes from bowed crotales, developing to a pointillistic series of what seemed to be loops, stately and steadily rippling from Parkins’ custom-made electric harp. The concert concluded with the full twenty-piece chamber orchestra playing Hrim (Icelandic for the transformation of ice crystals, or, in British English, hoarfrost), from Thorvaldsdottir’s debut US collection, Rhizoma, from last year. It was the most animated piece on the program, swirls of glissandos from the reeds and gusts from the brass interchanging with an insistent, occasionally menacingly percussive drive that alternated jarringly with the calm atmospherics.
Following the intermission, conductor Richard Carrick led an enlightening Q&A with the composer. Trained as a cellist, she embraced composition fulltime when she realized that she “could not live without writing music.” As cellists tend to, she finds comfort in the lower registers, a trait that resonates throughout her work. Her compositions do not specifically depict nature but are influenced by it and its patterns. The process of composing for her involves a lot of pre-composition, “dreaming on the music,” as she put it. While she notates her scores, she only does so when a piece is ready to go. She doesn’t compose on an instrument: the music is all in her head until it hits the staves. There’s also an aleatoric component to her work, no surprise considering how much extended technique is required to play it. The Composer Portrait series at the Miller continues next February 22 at 8 PM with Ensemble Signal spotlighting the works of Roger Reynolds.
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