Anton Webern: Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7
Marti Epstein: Oil and Sugar
Heinz Holliger: Harp Sequenza
Anton Webern: Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11
Anton Webern: Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano, Op. 22
Marti Epstein: Wonders of the Invisible World
Anton Webern: Variations for Piano, Op. 27
Christopher Rouse: Compline
Although this week was originally supposed to be kind of humdrum, it was much improved on Tuesday afternoon by an intellectually stimulating and immensely enjoyable – another proof that those two things are not mutually exclusive – lunch-time concert of music by Anton Webern and Mari Epstein at Lower Manhattan’s St. Paul’s Chapel, courtesy of Trinity Church Wall Street’s “Time’s Arrow – Webern Part 2” festival and some of the NOVUS NY musicians.
So there was nothing left to do but go back on Thursday afternoon. Same time, same place, same abominably crowded sidewalk from my office to the venue, same presenters, and some of the same composers as well as new ones because Trinity Wall Street is the gift that keeps on giving.
I quickly found a seat in the bright and attractive space during the introduction by Trinity Wall Street’s Director of Music and the Arts Julian Wachner and composer and professor Marti Epstein. As expected, more works by Webern and Epstein were on the program, but also a short piece for solo harp by Heinz Holliger, and a more substantial one, and probably louder too, by Christopher Rouse.
Not a bad mid-day treat for the first day of summer.
As if to get straight to the heart of the matter, the concert started off with Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, which was his first experiment with extreme concentration of form and content. It resulted in brief movements packed with inner meanings, the ethereally slow first and third alternating with the powerfully dramatic second and fourth, all of them being pointedly carried out in the most austere language possible by the fearless musicians of NOVUS NY.
On the other hand, Epstein’s Oil and Sugar avoided marked contrasts, and there was in fact an organically flowing quality to it that sounded incredibly easy-going after the uncompromising, and fulfilling, brain food we had just been fed. Inspired by Kadder Attia’s video of stacked up sugar cubes on which motor oil is poured, and their consequential crumpling into countless tiny details, the whole thing was highly palatable, and even tasty.
Holliger’s Harp Sequenza was a lovely interlude, during which the harp took us on quiet, slightly mysterious, journey of discovery of its numerous possibilities.
Back to Webern, his Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11 kind of followed the pattern established by his Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, except that the second piece is very short, the third is barely there, and the fourth is non-existent. Unapologetically experimental and concise to a fault, they sounded as revolutionary on Thursday after as they did back in 1914.
We stayed with Webern and fast-forwarded over 15 years for his Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, and Piano, Op. 22, an unusual combination of instruments that yielded a 6-minute, 2-movement composition so original that when it first came out his fellow composers of the Second Viennese School predictably loved it, and just as predictably pretty much everybody else hated it. On Thursday, the audience was definitely on the thumb up side, and deservedly so.
For better or worse, it is unlikely that Epstein’s Wonders of the Invisible World provokes such extreme reactions, mostly because this resolutely sparse and carefully constructed work for solo harp is engaging enough to get into easily, but at almost 15 minutes eventually feels like it is extending its welcome, even with the flawless performance we got to hear.
Next, we dutifully returned to Webern for his Variations for Piano, Op. 27, his only major work for the piano, which is a treacherously complex and highly virtuosic piece that offers plenty of challenges to the performer during its 6-minute running time. Not that it seemed to faze the pianist we had on the stage on Thursday, who obviously had the chops to handle it.
The clock was mercilessly ticking and I knew that I should be heading back to the office, but I simply could not walk away from a work by Christopher Rouse, and my dedication was largely rewarded with an exciting performance of his septet for flute, clarinet, harp, and string quartet, Compline. More inspired from the composer’s 1989 trip to Rome than by the final church service of the day in the Catholic church that is evoked in its title, the score did not sound the least bit religious, but came alive with vibrant colors and a cool touch of jazziness.
And then it was time for another mad dash to the office.