Third Angle New Music review: Hearty musical stew

Ensemble performs horn trios from three centuries.


Of the classical new music presenters in Portland, Third Angle New Music has been the most focused on bringing audiences the big world – the big names among living and recent composers, the big trends, the most famous works – from classics of the mid-20th century modernist esthetic, which valued novelty and experimentation and tended to dismiss traditional pleasures for the ear, to trendy Jacob Cooper, who would have been considered pop crossover during the modernist heyday if he was considered at all. Last Thursday and Friday evenings at Zoomtopia, they paradoxically went big in the time dimension, presenting composers from three different centuries, including Johannes Brahms. Arnold Schoenberg, one of the fathers of 20th-century modernism, once called Brahms a “progressive” but he hasn’t been progressive enough for Third Angle until now.

There was an excellent reason for the inclusion. The concert, impishly given the fate-tempting title “Blown Opportunity,” focused on horn trios, works for French horn, violin, and piano. Brahms’s Horn Trio, written the same year the American Civil War ended, might not be the earliest work for that combination, but it may as well be. It’s one of his finest works, and set a standard composers have been unable to ignore ever since. Even thoroughly modernist master György Ligeti, writing his Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano nearly 120 years later, called it an homage to Brahms.

3rd angle

The third century, our very own, was represented by emerging Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen’s three-year-old Vedana̅, a Third Angle commissioned work. Like much 21st century classical music in the Western European tradition, the modernist influence was obvious in the de-emphasis of key and melody yet dominated by an apparent concern for traditional aural beauty, as if to say, “experiments are all very well but one should ignore the failures.” It began with soft, full chords high in the piano, like ice sculptures that then seemed to melt, sourcing delicate violin and horn streams. Later on, all trace of ice gone, the piano gently undulated through several octaves while the violin and horn sailed above. After a pause, we seemed to hear the various instrumental characters chasing each other up and down a beach, and then the hitherto-unstated melody that inspired the whole piece finally appeared, leading to a low-key conclusion.

On Friday, it was so low-key that nobody dared break out in applause, even though the group (artistic director Ron Blessinger on violin, Oregon Symphony stalwart Joseph Berger – who incidentally “blew” very few opportunities – on horn, and Lewis & Clark College piano maven Susan DeWitt Smith) gave an assured and evocative performance. They quietly shuffled music on stands, but otherwise gave no indication a work had just ended. We waited expectantly for their next move.

And so we were suddenly, magically treated to the eerie opening violin intervals of Ligeti’s groundbreaking work, ironically evoking traditional horn music, while the horn circled warily in the best modernist, angular violin style. The work was the Hungarian composer’s first in a new style that, contrary to modernist dogma, didn’t bother to avoid traditional chords or treat them like special events, but instead used them with abandon, though without explicit reference to traditional keys and harmonic progressions. In the first movement we seemed to hear Ligeti’s own internal conflict about his new direction, or maybe instead, a dryly humorous depiction of the reaction he anticipated from his modernist colleagues. When the piano seconded the violin’s motion, the horn burst out indignantly, perhaps feeling outnumbered. And yet Ligeti wasn’t being too critical – the tempo marking includes “with tenderness.”

In the two middle movements, the horn call material gets supercharged in a couple different ways. The second movement gooses it along with a fast repeated C major scale in the piano that never reaches the top C, the seven resulting beats being divided into a driving Eastern European 2+2+3 rhythm. It doesn’t sound that difficult, and by itself it’s not, but it gradually became an endurance test for pianist Smith when combined with her other parts and the complex rhythms in the violin and horn. Nonetheless, the group never faltered.

At least the repeated scale does give a steady beat the other parts can synchronize with. In the third movement, a spastic march continues the same material without that crutch, made emphatic with lots of octave doubling, another modernist taboo. Just to make things more interesting, the violinist slips back in time to echo the piano part, as if the marchers had entered a vast empty arena. Blessinger negotiated this tricky maneuver with unerring aplomb. After a ghostly interlude, the march returns full force. It’s the last straw for Ligeti’s colleague on the horn, who bursts out again and again with strenuous objections, reminiscent of clarion calls from a Brahms symphony, yet twisted as if distorted by rage. The piano and violin continue unperturbed, and all three gradually whirl together to a climactic ending. Thanks to the committed performance of the group, it was the most exciting moment on the program, and I had to sit on my hands to keep from banging them enthusiastically together. (A colleague reported the Thursday audience was not so restrained.)

The final movement abruptly changes mood to a seemingly unconsolable lament. It begins with a single minor-key triad, one final challenge to the modernist esthetic, and also a time-honored signifier of sadness, but it soon shreds into a kind of anguish that is Ligeti’s special invention. In an earlier era, a descending chromatic scale evoked sorrow. Ligeti intensifies it by breaking it up into short segments that, while not always chromatic themselves, seem to be chromatic in aggregate. At the final climax, it seems as if all existence is slowly collapsing. Explosions pile up at the bottom of the piano’s range until it finally exhausts itself, leaving a previously almost unnoticed low, softly moaning horn and the violin on one high, pure note. And then, almost unbearably, they begin to droop in the same pattern, first the violin, and then the horn into the absolute depths. The piano enters softly with a funereal chorale, and maybe by analogy with another antique gesture – the Picardy third – the work ends on an almost questioning major-scale cluster.

Again the performance seemed assured even in the face of so many challenges. Berger was particularly impressive, nailing high note after high note, and only weakening a little on some of the lowest notes ever written for horn. (Blessinger likewise had a little trouble getting cooperation from some of the highest notes ever written for violin.) My one concern about overall effect and expression was that the most ferocious piano outbursts seemed a little subdued. Was Smith holding back? If so, it wasn’t obvious. Were the room acoustics responsible? It is a dry space, and some audience members I talked with had quite different reactions. Even more noticeably in the Brahms, the piano tended to recede from my vantage point, the center of the highest seats at the back. My best guess is that the Brahms especially needed a full length nine-foot concert grand, rather than the babyish grand which was brought in, to richly fill the space and overcome its dryness to the extent possible without electronics.

In his introductory remarks, Blessinger asked the audience to refrain from applause before the Brahms trio, so we could savor the transition to the work Ligeti intended to honor. And so we were again magically transported, this time to the hedonistic musical luxury of the mid-19th century. It became apparent during the performance that this was a group of musicians with its heart and soul in the modern era, as they shied away from an unabashedly emotional Romantic interpretation – that’s right, my dears, don’t believe everything you’ve heard about Brahmsian restraint. This is not only one of his greatest works but also one of his least restrained, both in the outpouring of sorrow for his mother’s death and the incongruously Bacchanalian finale that follows. Still, they made it a stirring conclusion to a wonderfully meaty concert. The stretch across three centuries may have made a bit of a stew, but stews are known for being hearty. I hope Third Angle continues to serve up such programs.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. There was one year in the late 1980s when he listened to nothing but Brahms. Despite this, he managed to stay married for several more years.


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