I admit I never asked whether the joint occurrence of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy and the opening concert last Sunday of the University of Tennessee Faculty Chamber Series was by design or by coincidence of the calendar. While I suspect the latter, the UT School of Music seized the overwhelming importance and obligation of the day and programmed four works that followed something of an arc describing, in musical terms, the nature of war and strife, its aftermath, and the resulting sadness and tragedy.
That arc began with a Keith Snell arrangement of music for brass quintet from the film score for Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III by William Walton. The score is, by nature, cinematically suggestive of battle and strife, while the arrangement’s rich brass sonority itself transports the listener, consciously or unconsciously, into the imbedded image one has of 1950s-era British Shakespearean production. The strife here showed up as competing trumpet tonalities—one breathy and human, the other clean and aggressive. The faculty Brasswind Quintet consists of Cathy Leach and Emily Whildin (trumpets), Karl Kramer (horn), Daniel Cloutier (trombone), and Sande McMorran (tuba).
Following along the arc, Matthew Arnold’s somewhat enigmatic poem “Dover Beach” was the source for a Samuel Barber work of the same name for string quartet and baritone. One of Barber’s strengths is his ability to use the human voice against instrumental texture in ways that are quietly evocative. Baritone Andrew Wentzel brought the text to life with strength and crystal-clear enunciation, accompanied by the faculty string quartet: Mark Zelmanovich and Miroslav Hristov (violins), Hillary Herndon (viola), and Wesley Baldwin (cello). The last three lines, often quoted in a number of contexts, were certainly appropriate for the occasion: “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Delightfully enigmatic, as well, but also coolly satisfying, was the first performance heard here of Duo for Two Pianos by UT faculty member Brendan McConville. McConville’s work placed the two pianists (Kevin Class and Kristian Klefstad) in somewhat adversarial positions, with each pursuing opposing musical viewpoints, complete with rhythmical attacks and mildly dissonant conflict, punctuated by the use of pianist-performed percussion instruments. In the context of the day, the percussion effect certainly reinforced the idea of strife, if not the metaphorical drumbeat of war.
It seems a bit odd—but maybe understandable—that many contemporary composers have consciously avoided using the 9/11 tragedy as subject material, despite the overwhelming effect it has had on the lives of Americans. One composer who did venture into that territory was Libby Larsen, whose 2005 work Sifting Through the Ruins (five songs for mezzo-soprano, viola, and piano) concluded the afternoon’s arc. Without the emotional distance and returning optimism that 10 years brings, the work feels uncompromisingly sad. Yet it is the stories—the anecdotes of random loss and duty pieced together from scraps of thoughts left as remembrances around the city—that ultimately describe the emotions of the days following the attacks.
Mezzo-soprano Lorraine DiSimone gave the all-important texts beautifully descriptive enunciation that punctuated despair flowing into lyricism. The third song, “Don’t Look for Me Anymore,” was a beautiful example of that lyricism, despite the hopelessness of its message. The final song of the five, “Someone Passes,” reflects on how humans adapt to sorrow—“Slowly the heart adjusts to its new weight.”
Musically, the thematic material of the songs is introduced and carried by the duo of viola (Hillary Herndon) and piano (Kevin Class). The gorgeously played instrumental combination was, nonetheless, the bearer of unsettling dissonances, sonic loneliness, and realizations of horror. Herndon’s viola was called on especially to convey sadness with unresolved glissandos and tension with staccato bow techniques.
This was one of those concerts that impresses the listener, but later haunts—reminding one of the idiocy of violence and the fragility of the human experience.