Fans help select the program in the contemporary ensemble's last concert of the season.
What do listeners want? I mean beside winning the lottery, world peace, and having lunch with Michelle Obama. Present Music set out to answer that question with its final concert of the season, a repertory collection of pieces that were “selected” by Present Music fans through an online voting process.
The voting happened during the month prior to the concert. PM’s Kevin Stalheim, introducing the program at the Wherehouse in Walker’s Point, told the small crowd that most of the top vote-getters were included on the program, saving a piano trio that couldn’t be scheduled due to the challenge of bringing an acoustic grand piano to the venue.
Judging from the concert, what Present Music listeners most want is sound. Not an unusual expectation for a concert—even one of contemporary art music. But the motif running through the nine pieces performed on the program Friday night was new sounds—ones generally created with traditional instruments, but often supplemented with electronics and recordings.
Like Landscape with Birds, a stunningly lush piece for solo alto flute by Peteris Vasks, performed by Jennifer Clippert. Vasks creates a varied sonic palette with overblowing, humming, extreme registers and even the percussive clicking of keys. Clippert played it masterfully, creating a rich soundscape.
Or Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar for string quartet (violinists Eric Segnitz and Peter Vickery, violist Maria Ritzenhaler and cellist Adrien Zitoun), which evokes the industrial heft and urban energy of New York City’s architectural marvel, the Brooklyn Bridge, but takes on a more spiritual dimension a few minutes into the piece with the addition of an audio track—a voice singing parts of Hart Crane’s famous poem.
Pop Musikk is a playful piece for solo woodwind—here William Helmers’ clarinet—set against a burbling, rhythmically charged electronic soundtrack. As the background changes shifts from space-age tweedles to Looney Tunes swing, the clarinet hews close to an almost obsessive motive, occasionally breaking out into free flight that use the extremes of the instrument’s sound palate.
Marcos Balter’s Bladed Stance owes more than a little to Steve Reich in the Music for 18 Musicians phase. It’s a pulsing, atmospheric, and uses unique instrument blends to create sounds that seem to hang in the air like vapor.
Helmers took up the bass clarinet for Ken Thomson’s Perpetual: Underlying, which pairs the instrument’s deep, meditative tone with a string quartet. It’s a majestic procession of steady, searching chords that eventually climbs into the stratosphere of each instruments’ range, taxing both players and listeners.
David Hertzberg’s Meditation Boreale for string quartet is true to its meteorological name, using harmonics and overtones to ethereal ends. After building to an intense climax, it ends with a plaintive viola solo, beautifully played here by Ritzenhaler.
Nico Muhly’s Balance Problems confirmed why Muhly is one of the composers of the moment (Muhly’s So Far So Good was also included in the latest Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra program). Muhly loves to pair instruments for rich and unusual textures (here, Don Sipes’ trumpet and Adrien Zeitoun’s cello play unison lines), and creates a thrumming soundscape that doesn’t sound anything like a collection of six acoustic instruments.
The concert opened with a mini showcase of work from PM’s ComposeMilwaukee initiative, with employees of local manufacturer Badger Meter creating a piece apropos of the company’s mission. Composer Nick Weckman used water, vodka bottles and a variety of clanging industrial parts to create an interesting soundscape, that included recorded audio from the company’s offices. Weckman’s A Metaphor used the audience instructions (paper crumpling, foot stomping, spoken words) to create a one-of-a-kind piece that followed a mock-ominous narration about astronomical matters.
Present Music packs up for the summer and returns in the fall with a season devoted to the intersection between traditional classical music and contemporary work.