An Evening of Contemporary Music in ReviewAn Evening of Contemporary Music: Compositions by George Oakley, Richard Danielpour, Justin Dello Joio Inga Kashakashvili, Steven Masi, Nino Jvania, Piano; Mary Mackenzie, Soprano; Anton Rist, Clarinet; Jay Campbell, Cello Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Center; New York, NY February 9, 2014
An evening of contemporary music is indeed truly new when one of three composers on the program is completely unknown to the reviewer. In this case, the Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia) native George Oakley bookended works by his two composition teachers in a well-played program. All three of the composers share certain affinities and influences: neo-Romanticism, neo-Impressionism. Thank goodness academia has ceased to devalue, or worse, ridicule, music that allows the expression of sentiment through a more traditional use of tonality. All the music on the program was readily comprehensible, clear in structure, and beguiling in sonority. Harold Bloom wrote of the “anxiety of influence,” but this evening was more about influence without anxiety.
Mr. Oakley’s two Shakespeare sonnet settings (Sonnets 56 and 111) were sensitively set, despite the fact that, as Mr. Oakley reminded us, he is not a native English speaker. He “did not kill the spirit of love with a perpetual dullness,” although the songs could have benefited from clearer diction by Mary Mackenzie. Here, one was aware of a sort of “song continuum” from Georges Auric to Ned Rorem and Henri Sauguet, down to Mr. Oakley. The collaborative pianist in the Shakespeare settings, Inga Kashakashvili, segued effortlessly into the Debussy-like colors of three of Richard Danielpour’s From the Enchanted Garden Preludes, Vol. II. Her touch was liquid at all times, with seemingly limitless color, and one always sensed that she meant every note intensely. She also brought out the raucous, jazzy jokiness of “There’s a Ghost in my Room!”
Remembrance for clarinet and piano, by Mr. Oakley, was a world premiere. Its tone was predominantly elegiac, as befit the title. The first section Daydream began in imitative style, interrupted by Dream, a more impassioned outburst, concluding with Awakening, a return to the opening material transformed. Perhaps Mr. Oakley will find more variety in his structures as he matures. Nearly everything was in a very audible three-part A-B-A (sometimes with Coda) form. The performance was beautifully shaded by clarinetist Anton Rist and pianist Nino Jvania. Prelude, Nocturne, and Toccata by Mr. Oakley was given an exciting reading by Ms. Kashakashvili. She never made an ugly piano sonority, even when the music turned more extroverted.
Pianist Steven Masi gave a ferociously virtuosic performance of Justin Dello Joio’s Two Concert Etudes: Momentum and Farewell. This reviewer did not expect the most “progressive” sounds of the evening to be in this work, but they were. Glimmers of the Scherzo from Barber’s Piano Sonata seemed to be peeking through the rapid-fire textures of Momentum. Dedicated to the memory of Danish opera and film star Poul Arne Bundgaard, Farewell was somber, implying rather than stating its tonality directly, perhaps a metaphor for the death of its dedicatee.
The programming was excellent, saving the best for last, another world premiere, Mr. Oakley’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. This is an extended three movement work, given an impassioned and marvelously “together” rendition by cellist Jay Campbell and the masterful Ms. Kashakashvili. The work was excellently crafted, real chamber music, and the unanimity of the two artists was stunning, not only in their delivering of the musical text, but in their intention. In his program note, Mr. Oakley expressed concern about his ability to write a lighter, happy sort of Finale. He succeeded, without triviality. This work deserves to take its place in the smallish repertoire of cello sonatas, and to be essayed by intrepid conservatory students and other recitalists.
Overall, these composers are extremely fortunate to have performing artists of this caliber take up their music and fill it with such beauty and commitment. It was also heartening to see so many younger children in the audience, listening intently. The Cello Sonata was dedicated to one of these smartly dressed children: Dylan Carlson, son of the principal producer of the event.