In a completely unnerving turn of events, by mid-July in Austin we have had an absolute ton of rain and only a handful of 100+ degree days. I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in California only to return to A-town on what turned out to be a record-breaking 109-degree June afternoon, but beyond that anomaly it’s been unseasonably lovely. Usually this time of year marks the beginning of relative cave-dwelling during much of the day; long strolls through books stores and experimental coffee houses dovetail with lunch on the lanai of a café, surrounded by a cadre of mister fans doing their best Wimbledon audience impression, forever sweeping back and forth. With the meteorological gods on our side (for now) however, I’m hard-pressed to be inside for anything less than spectacular, and the Austin Chamber Music Festival certainly qualified.
This annual three-week festival has developed over the years by taking its broad and general title quite literally. It’s not summer classics, new music, or jazz; it’s all that and more. Calling virtually all comers, the festival has something for everyone without spreading itself too thin. Groups like avant jazz trio The Bad Plus rubbed shoulders with the Fine Arts Quartet. Local upstart Mother Falcon tore it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s while Richard Stoltzman and ACMC Director Michelle Schumann split their show into two sets, one classic and one new. The Brasil Guitar Duo performed music from several centuries, and Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley closed the festival with a stunning yet intimate duet concert presented to an absolutely drenched audience, one that certainly must have thought they were anywhere but Austin in July, not because of the music, but because water was falling out of the sky outside.
Of course, there were many stellar performances during the festival, and among the highlights for me was the Mother Falcon show. Consisting of a rotating group of between 15 and 20 musicians, Mother Falcon’s quasi chamber orchestra/rock band had the look of the former but for the most part the sound of the latter. Ranging in age from late high school to early college, they packaged all the energy of a garage band at their first gig with the songwriting and performance level of seasoned professionals. There were no programs, so I’m not sure of the various titles that were occasionally announced from the stage (this was a rock show) but the opening tunes essentially had the formal bones of rock dressed sharply in a variety of attractive chamber arrangements. The Falcons were joined for a portion of their show by additional players (younger still, somehow) who were members of the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Summer Program. It was interesting to watch such a large group navigate the difficulties faced by rock bands since time immemorial. Dealing with on-stage communication among players, as well as the challenges inherent in performing with speakers and monitors (especially if you’re playing acoustic instruments which lend themselves to feedback issues and whose tone is often strangled when run through a P.A. system) are all part of “Live Rock 101.” Fortunately, there were virtually no issues, and Mother Falcon treated the nearly packed venue to a great show.
Third Coast Percussion’s performance at Bates Concert Hall featured works by Reich and Cage, as well as two pieces written by the performers. Fractalia by TCP member Owen Clayton Condon was a perfect piece to start the show; a short, inviting amuse bouche to whet the appetite. Moto perpetuo figures echoed between marimbas, these figures complimented and set off by occasional accents on toms. The Condon was followed by Reich’s Mallet Quartet, which started off with many of the classic Reich tropes but showed some newer ideas in the second movement. Asymmetrical phrases populated symmetrical sections featuring two marimbas playing four bars figures followed by two vibraphones playing 16 bars, the entire form repeated several times. There was something of a music box texture in the vibes as their chords rang out above large structures in the bass register of the marimba, the latter sounding like strummed guitar chords. On the surface, Third Construction by Cage has a number of features that mark it as a precedent to groups like Stomp and Blue Man Group, whose bread and butter stems largely from creating compelling rhythmic constructions from unorthodox sources. The wide variety of instruments used here (including conch shell) have for the most part made their way into the “mainstream” of new concert music (okay, maybe not the conch), but the visual impact of watching a performer keen away on the shell as the other members of the group perform complex, driving, interlocking rhythms has at least some connection with BMG doing their PVC pipe bit. The couple sitting to my right looked to be straight out of an AARP commercial with the notable exception that they both grooved for the duration of the piece, heads bobbing like bizarre extras in a hip hop video. TCP’s performance of the piece was energetic and thoroughly engaging and the reaction of the audience would not have been out of place at the Mother Falcon show, whoops and hollers and all. The second half of the concert was devoted to David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time. Consisting of six movements played without pause, the work appeared seamlessly at the end of the intermission by way of a prerecorded track. This quiet, sparse material served as a foundation for vibes and marimba figures rising and falling dynamically and building eventually to nearly painful heights, especially with hard mallets on the vibes at fff. The work moved through a variety of moods and textures, and at times had the audience looking around and behind to find other performers on wind chimes and other atmospheric instruments. Though contemplative in tone over all, Common Patterns in Uncommon Time was in like a lion and out like a lamb.
Austin is not hurting for music festivals, and it’s no mistake that the behemoths SXSW and Austin City Limits are in spring and fall respectively to allow attendees to enjoy the nice weather during those periods. Doing anything in Austin in the summer can be a bit of a drag, but checking out week after week of top notch chamber players is a pretty spectacular way to pass the time. The variety and quality of performers and venues, coupled with extensive outreach including free concerts, kept it fresh and interesting throughout the festival. Director Michelle Schumann has worked tirelessly to retain legacy audiences while pushing far outside the boundaries of the traditional summer music fest, so if you find yourself in Austin in the middle of the summer do yourself a favor and check it out.