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At Home with Present Music?

Caroline Shaw octet provided a break in the gloom

Jun. 25, 2014
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Present Music presents a smorgasbord of composers and styles, with some degree of hit and miss as part of the nature of performing new music. The season finale, performed Friday evening at the Cabot Theatre (normally home to Skylight) was decidedly more miss than hit. 

Entitled Home Place, the concert included four pieces, three of which used home as what seemed a half-baked theme. The seven-movement Shelter (2005) by David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, with a libretto by Deborah Artman, lasted more than an hour and felt endless. Oppressively dreary, without any warmth that a theme of shelter might imply, the music was played with continuous, obtusely related, moody and deeply uninteresting video. The composers constantly dwell on a couple of repeated harmonies, with minor chords predominant, trading in ever-changing rhythmic mutations that on this scale just sounded pointless and more of the same. For voices and a large ensemble, the orchestration was so thick at times that many instruments played uselessly, seen but not heard.

It was much ado about not much. I heard many concert goers around me grumbling after it ended. Some left.

Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (which means homeward in Yiddish) is traveling music, static harmony with a minor tone and driving, intricate rhythmic variation, played gamely by a string quartet. Am I the only one who is tired of this aesthetic? Couldn’t someone at least obsess about a major chord for a change? A video of acid color animation accompanied what was some kind of journey, but it was all forgotten immediately.

Caroline Shaw’s Passacaglia, for an octet of a cappella voices, was a much-needed break in the gloom. Wordless, the singers playfully sailed through vowel sounds, unconventional vocal effects and spoken word. Present Music Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim created a casual, inchoate mash-up called Home for the finale, with recorded sounds of the Milwaukee lakefront and other recordings mixed with aleatoric combinations of disparate music by singers and orchestra, ending with the audience singing “Home, Sweet Home.” It was lightweight, whimsical, somewhat sentimental, but felt thrown together.


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