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Present Music's Around 30: The Dark Side of Turning 30

Mar. 5, 2012
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It's hard to turn 30.  That and 60 were my troubled birthdays.  The helpless dismay and self-absorption provoked by those milestones can wreak havoc on a person's hopes.

Present Music turned 30 this year and is throwing a season-long theme party.  The concert last Saturday at the Turner Hall Ballroom, titled “Around 30,” consisted of work by “around 30” artists, each “around 30” years old.  Music compositions by seven composers, two accompanied by videos and two by dancers, were presented.  Other artists installed work around the room's periphery, including videos, an interactive puppet piece, drawings and a rudimentary light show.

If the intention was, as it appeared to be, to include the bleaker aspects of growing up in the birthday celebration, the honesty was bracing.  It was rough going, though.  Even Present Music's founding artistic director Kevin Stalheim, acting in his customary role as MC, seemed listless, worried perhaps that the malaise expressed in many of the works would infect the crowd.  It did a bit.

The Present Music ensemble served the music with conscientious sensitivity.  There were few virtuoso opportunities. Clarinetist William Helmers had most of them and was excellent.  Percussionist Carl Storniolo, pianist Douglas Jurs, flutist Marie Sander, guitarist Eric Segnitz, and double bass player Andrew Raciti were fine in several pieces written for that unusual group of instruments.  Cellist Adrien Zitoun, saxophonist Matthew Sintchak, and David Lussier on trombone had less to do, but did it well.

Seth Warren-Crow was guest percussionist and Laura Murphy was guest choreographer/dancer for Milwaukee composer/experimental vocalist Amanda Schoof's “Acedia,” composed this winter. Segnitz playing the violin at its highest, quietist registers joined them.  All are fine performers, but the dancing in this case was a distraction from the meditative, if somewhat melodramatic, composition.  It must have been a challenge to choreograph to music this austere.

The show's high point was a terrific performance by dancer Christal Wagner, intelligently choreographed by Simon Eichinger to a cock-eyed piece called  “Little Green Pop” (2008), composed by Los Angeles native Sean Friar at the perhaps less conflicted age of 23.  This dance illuminated the music, and brought it and the audience to life.

At some point in Jacob Cooper's “Untitled (2007),” the unutterable sadness of the work hit me.  Against a long recorded soundtrack of soprano voices, a boys' choir perhaps, floating slow notes in an echoing cathedral, the musicians sat quietly, playing almost nothing.  A piano note here, a long bowed bass note there.  Ross Nugent's misty video accompaniment, titled “Zero's Own Moonlight,” was equally open.

Anna Clyne's “Rapture” (2005) featured Helmer's panicked clarinet screaming against a pre-recorded apocalypse.  Missy Massoli's “Magic With Everyday Objects” (2007), described as “a piece on the edge of a nervous breakdown,” created an almost ludicrous tension between a romantic piano melody and total chaos.  Patrick Burke's “All Together Now,” (2004) was coolly modern, not to say dry.  Paola Prestini's unassuming “Spell” (2009) was overshadowed by Carmen Kordas' surrealistic video “Untitled.”  It was one of several pieces that drifted into somber silence and left the audience uncertain.

Of the side projects, Jon Horvath's video of a 30-something man at a dinner table with a bobbing string of drool hanging from his mouth was remarkable.  The puppet show involved a large, featureless, unmoving hand holding the mechanism that operates a marionette.  Willing audience members were attached to the strings, instructed to behave like puppets at the mercy of “the hand of fate,” and photographed doing so.  Each participant was responsible for the success of the performance, belying the concept.  Fate had nothing to do with it.

Thirty is still young.


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