Jay Campbell Plays an Insane Show at Columbia
Cellist Jay Campbell characterized his program last night at Columbia University’s Italian Academy as “kind of insane,” and he was right on the money. Campbell, winner of the Concert Artists Guild’s 2012 competition, keeps a very busy schedule and seems to gravitate toward contemporary repertoire. This concert seemed to be an opportunity for him to blow off some steam. The bill started somewhat haphazardly with the world premiere of Jonathan Dawe‘s Cello Sonata, with Stephen Gosling on piano. On one hand, its architecture is clever, taking the sonata concept as we understand it today back two hundred years by giving the lion’s share of activity to the piano rather than the cello. On the other hand, the way it constantly veered between classical harmony and the twelve-tone system was jarring, as motive after motive flashed by. It never really had time to coalesce.
Jason Eckardt’s Flux, with Campbell joined by flutist Eric Lamb, began with the feel of a jazz improvisation, albeit one without the kind of sputtering and scraping you might expect from the pairing of these two instruments. It came together subtly and artfully as the duo intertwined and exchanged voices.
The piece de resistance was the New York premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s 1981 composition Vanitas: Still Life in One Act, Campbell teaming with Gosling and soprano Sharon Harms. It goes on too long, becomes interminable and repeats itself practically ad nauseum, but that seems intentional: this twistedly creepy, glacially slow, sardonic punk classical piece is as funny as it is menacing (and brutally difficult to play!), and the audience loved it. Does any other work exist which requires the cellist to spend so much time playing fractions of an inch from the bridge? 95% of the cello score is harmonics, but Campbell was up to the challenge, through a droll, endless call-and-response with Harms, whispery sustained accents punctuated by long, pregnant pauses and the occasional rise to whiplash agitation or icily spinning circular phrases delivered with icepick precision by Gosling.
Both the pianist and cellist managed to keep a straight face, although Harms couldn’t, no surprise since she got the bulk of the work’s silliest moments, her stentorian, declamatory phrases trailing off into a quasi-yodel. Sciarrino’s incessant use of microtones and slides make it even more difficult for a singer, but Harms nailed it, to the extent that you can nail something as slippery as this. And when the time came about midway through where it seemed that the composer realized that a horror film soundtrack of sorts was within reach and then went for it, more or less abandoning the tomfoolerly, the effect was viscerally chilling. At least until Campbell’s long, slow, deadpan downward slide at the very end, the sonic equivalent of a tracking shot panning the horizon at a dead crawl as the sun slips under. He’d never heard the piece prior to playing it, grinningly explaining it as “a lot stranger than I had expected.” Here’s to having the nerve to tackle it at all, let alone with such deviously purposeful command.
No comments yet.