Present Music's latest concert is both "Hilarious" and beautiful.
Early in Richard Ayres’s No. 42, In The Alps, the center piece of Present Music’s Friday program at Turner Hall, singer soprano Jennifer Goltz performs a solo “aria” describing how her character (a girl raised by goats) learned to sing, and creates a veritable Noah’s Ark of animal sounds—goats, swine, cicadas, owls, eagles, nightingales—that eventually coalesce into a sort of oom-pah fugue. Remarkably, Goltz sings most of it a capella, her voice jumping registers and radically switching sonorities as she imitates every animal. The composer Ayres doesn’t hold back, creating a technical showcase for contemporary music that rivals Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. And the surest sign that Goltz has handled it beautifully is that it was absolutely hilarious.
That is, in fact, the fitting title of PM’s concert: “Hilarious.” But that didn’t mean the program was without some moments of serious beauty. Ayres’ dramatic cantata, for instance, for all its faux sonic bluster (22 instruments, including some serious low-end woodwind hardware), is also a work of existential sweetness, a bedtime story filtered through Kafka about unrequited love and loneliness. While “In the Alps,” might be a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Mahler and Richard Strauss, the occasional cacophony serves as a contrast to simple but profound sentiments.
You could say the same for other works on the program. Philip Bimstein’s “Garland Hirsch’s Cows” uses a recorded interview with a Utah farmer as base for the music. He loops the phrases into infectious rhythms, adding fizzy doses of marimba and strings. But he slows things down in a passage describing how the family uses one cow for beef through the winter, a meditation on one of the elemental facts of human existence. Michael Daugherty uses a recording of Elvis impersonators to similar effect in “Elvis Everywhere,” and it’s more or less pure fun. But hearing voices try to recreate the spirit of this departed icon, the mind drifts to ideas of mortality and what lingers on after death.
The program opened with two of PM’s star soloists, violinist Eric Segnitz and pianist Cory Smythe, playing John Adams 1995 “Road Movies.” Today Adams is best known for his large-scale symphonic and theater works—he loves big sounds. So it was great to hear one of his rare forays into small-scale chamber music. Here, his minimalist roots—as well as his sense of humor—were on display. Repeating motifs in each instrument mix and match to a driving pulse that suggests barreling down a desert highway. Smythe and Segnitz played it with sure and spunky technique, adding the ineffable quality of “swing” to a quintessentially American piece.