A Wide Presentation of Extraordinary Chamber Works

Left to Right: Trace Johnson, cello; Sheng-Yuan Kuan, piano; Sergei Skobin, piano; Yordan Tenev, violin; Olivia Kieffer, composer and toy piano; Logan Rutledge toy piano; Jennifer Reason, piano; Dannel Espinoza, saxophone; Cathie Apple, flute; Misty Theisen, flute

Zimmermann’s Café Chamber Music, named for the Leipzig coffee house where many of Bach’s secular cantatas were performed, presented a concert on Sunday entitled, “Music Written Today; Composers Here and Now.” The 4:00pm concert presented chamber works by prominent local composers in the fellowship hall of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. This series, curated by composer Clare Shore and co-founder Gregory Stepanich, provides a wonderful outlet for the community to hear the works of living composers, in an acoustic space that I am pleased to say is perfectly suited to the medium.


The afternoon began with composer, Morgan Denney’s work for solo cello, White-Knuckling. This piece conveyed raw, scratchy purpose with snippets of pizzicato thoughtfulness that neatly sliced through the form to set up breaks in the anxiety. As each attempt to get grounded in lyricism is interrupted, some passages could be described as crying, mourning even, with very thin lyric lines conveyed by the cellist playing near the bridge. Denney brings the work to a rousing finish as alarm sounds in the cello and the cello fades to nothing. We desperately want to know if there is relief to be had after this frustration. Perhaps another movement? Denney is skilled at conveying raw energy in soundscape and composition form with beautiful lyricism that deconstructs to reinforce the musical language. The reasons for creating the piece are clearly communicated to the audience in the music. In the discussion following the performance of the piece (each piece would receive this open forum treatment), it was revealed that the composer chose the cello specifically for this work, because of the “growl” it can produce. A often challenging and colorful bowing that added symmetry to the sectional form, cellist Trace Johnson, handled the piece with precision and grace, eliciting a perfect tone in the small hall. 

Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano

The senior-most composer represented on the concert, Marshall Turkin (b. 1926), presented a performance of a nostalgic work for saxophone he composed in his 20’s. A traditional Sonata-form, the expository themes and development were all present, with moments of lyric interlude where the saxophone was duly allowed to sing. There were some balance issues in the tiny hall where the beautiful grand piano, played by Sheng-Yuan Kuan, desperately wanted to sing with the saxophone, played by Dannel Espinoza, in its higher registers, but couldn’t compete. The second movement finally finds its stride after a pedantic opening. The final movement returns to its expository material with a rousing high register ending in the saxophone. The audience loved it. A fascinating open forum followed where the saxophonist detailed his personal connection to a favored mouthpiece, and the famous saxophonist, Sigurd Rascher, who first premiered, then published this work.

Intensities of Degrees

In the brief description of the work, composer Clare Shore detailed her collaboration with the ensemble who commissioned the work, Intensities of Degrees. Flutists Misty Theisen and Cathie Apple are lively and powerful players, well-accustomed to scary “new music,” and all of its quirks. However, there were no “quirks” in Shore’s interpretation of White Heat, Glacial Blue or Ecco la Verde. Quite the contrary, the program notes offered by the composer before the performance only enhanced our expected experience. We were given a visceral interpretation of white heat, which in physics land (a realm many of us in the arts would be fearful to tread), means any material that is heated to a temperature of 1500 to 1600 C. Listeners felt the extreme heat build as the composition explored the ultimate ranges of the flute, and when that would not suffice, the piccolo brought out the searing white heat we expected. Pianist Jennifer Reason is a joy to watch perform with precision and beautiful tone, as she explored the extremes of the piano with extended techniques. In the Glacial Blue movement, the flutist detached the mouthpiece from the flute and played into the piano, a brilliant stroke in the composition, which gave us an eerily calm, yet “blue” quality. This movement was a buffet of glacial sounds: sparse, blue, echoing…interrupted violently by an audience member’s cellphone going off. The placid soundscape was shattered, not to mention the usability of the composer’s recording, as the cell phone continued to ring through several cycles, until a woman was heard muttering, “Bad timing,” as she finally silenced it. Ecco la Verde began to heal us with a beautiful color palette of sound: a sustained piano and lyric melody in the flute. More melodic figures and a masterful dialogue between flute and piano, with that sustained piano coming back to give us the lush “green” environment of the movement. A truly beautiful and exciting work that delivers on its promises.

Nobility of Homophones II

Not often do we get the opportunity to hear toy pianos in concert. This is a unique medium for this composer’s voice, and we do truly hope that it continues to appear on this concert series. Olivia Kieffer composed tonal rhythmic motives that fluctuated and repeated, creating an ever-changing sound world. Even to hear the action of the two player pianos, performed by the composer and a pianist, Logan Rutledge, as the keys struck against the mechanism seemed to enhance the piece. When it comes to “new music” concerts, sometimes there is a tendency to over-analyze, and in this piece, you wanted to just sit back and let the sound world take you. Some called it “Christmas-y,” some invoked early John Cage, and others couldn’t describe the direct reaction they had to the driving rhythms and tonal changes in the open forum. Whatever it evoked, we would love to hear part I.

Piano Trio no. 2

Composer Frederic Glesser deftly navigated the sound pallet of the trio.   The piano, played by Sergei Skobin, did the heavy lifting in keeping the ensemble together, and never resting. The beautiful pairing of Yordan Tenev on violin and Trace Johnson on cello yielded some exquisite moments were both players dug into their respective instruments, producing a depth of sound and tonal color that made us love the trio form all over again. The continued to warm into their sound as an ensemble as the piece progressed, and overall the hall again proved to be an excellent acoustic environment for this ensemble. Glesser took time to explore the timbral sweet spots of each instrument and subsequent pairings, with beautiful motives and rhythmic pulses. There was complexity in the sound, but it never obscured nor confounded the experience.

It is extremely important and relevant that a concert series like Zimmerman’s Café exists. I was expecting the intrepid gathering of a hard-core new music collective, and what I received was an open, welcoming concert series that sought to lift the veil on “new music” and curate a program of approachable music, composed by living, breathing, working composers. Open forums can often be a perilous adventure, however at Zimmerman’s Café the message was clear: “we want you to ask questions, we want to talk with you about our music.” Each forum and presentation was handled with expert care, and the audience seemed comfortable expressing themselves and asking questions. Just please, if you attend, heed those frequent reminders to silence your cell phones. This representation of multi-generational composers was a delightful way to engage the audience and show the scope of new music, and how it is progressing. Bravo.   

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