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Challenging Guest Artists Featured at Present Music Season Finale

Jun. 6, 2017
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Present Music returned to the Wherehouse for its season closer Friday evening with two performances, one at 6 p.m. (which I attended), the second at 9. The concert was curated by guest music director Cory Smythe, who is also a composer and a wonderful pianist.

The featured guest artist was saxophonist/composer Steve Lehman, heard in his Laamb and Dub, which both blur the lines between composition and improvisation, with an attractive natural inclination to jazz sounds. Lehman is a master of his instrument, displaying every technique imaginable. Lehman’s string quartet Nos Revi Nella captured relentless nervous energy.

Smythe had a premiere with his composition Reenactment, notable for its inventive use of a detuned guitar combined with piano to approximate the sound of “an upright in an old saloon,” to borrow from the program note. The sound was fascinating, though I’m not sure I got the composer’s stated intent of a “tightly-wound ghost story.”

The concert was not long, with just more than an hour of music, but was challenging to the ear. The first five pieces gave listeners no break from edgy sounds. This part of the program felt a bit conceptual and needed more contrasts. Then came Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 6L of 1971, for piano and sax, slow and moody, using colorful Messiaen-like harmonies, beautifully played by Lehman and Smythe.

Except for the Thanksgiving concert, it’s rare to encounter earnest, open emotion in a Present Music concert. That came in spades with Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, a set of variations on “Amazing Grace,” well played by Naha Greenholtz, Eric Segnitz, Maria Ritzenthaler and Adrien Zitoun. Each time I hear this piece it deepens in impact. Johnston creates a style of Americana that somehow gets out of the shadow of Aaron Copland. The final grand statement of this soulful tune brought tears.

In the harbor area by the lake, the Wherehouse is an interesting performance space. The large room with a high ceiling is acoustically friendly. I realized how rare daylight is in classical concerts with a stage placed in front of a wall of windows.

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