The commissioning of new works is the life blood of contemporary music. Whether large or small, from consortiums, ensembles, foundations, or individuals, these nods to compositional creativity provide practical support for composers as well as career-boosting validation. Texas Performing Arts and Conspirare are two of the strongest players in the music scene in Austin, and their commitment to the commissioning and performing of new works is significant. Recently, both groups commissioned and premiered major new works within only a few days of one another. Fall is always overflowing with great sounds, and this embarrassment of new music riches, coupled with a bit of mercifully cool weather, made for an exciting start to the season.
The double string quartet is a bit of a rare avis. If you happen to attend a concert with a new one programmed, you’re also going to hear either the Shostakovich or the Mendelssohn. It’s going to happen. Or you may hear both as bookends to the new work, which is what the audience experienced when the Miró and Shanghai quartets came together to premier Dan Welcher’s new work Museon Polemos. ** The Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet, which preceded the Welcher, featured a common setup for the performers which (from stage right) is the standard quartet configuration (vn, vn, vc, va) but doubled. A little weird, like driving an unfamiliar stick shift, but still quite workable. However, Museon Polemos’ antiphonal requirements not only had the quartets set up opposite one another but also had the viola and cello switch their conventional position such that both groups (when viewed from the audience) were mirror images of violin I, violin II, viola, and cello from the front to the back of the stage on a bit of an angle. I imagine that after a few decades you get pretty used to having the viola right there, so doing a shell game shuffle with the seating positions could be, you know, problematic; something like driving in England with the stick in your left hand, the clutch under your right foot, in the rain, caught in one of those endless roundabouts. Yet during this performance, you’d never know anything was unusual, either from what you could see or hear, all of which was dynamic, compelling, and flawlessly performed. Labeled as a “25 minute ballet without dancers,” Museon Polemos pits the two string quartets against one another in an Apollonian/Dionysian contrast of music and mood with the Shanghai quartet as the thoughtful, cool former and the Miró quartet as the visceral, earthy latter. While the forthcoming Rite of Spring centennial is in the near future, Welcher took inspiration primarily from Stravinsky’s later ballets of the ’30s and ’40s when composing his work.
The work opened with a short, sharp tutti chord which contained the harmonic profile of both groups, combined in one thorny punch. This led to an introduction to the character of each quartet, starting with the Shanghai’s bright, clean lines in the violins bolstered by pizzicato in the viola. The Miró responded with sneering, blocky double-stops, violin I rising against accents in violin II. The sabre rattling took the shape of solos with both groups firing shots over the other’s bow until the movement ended, the matter unresolved, illustrated by another statement of the opening chord. The second movement began with Miró weaving a unison line contrasted by chords performed by Shanghai. A solo broke from the unison line, dramatically contrasting and ultimately dominating the chords in the Shanghai. However, before a death blow could be dealt, a slow, melancholy, barcarolle-like motion emerged from the remains of the chords Shanghai had all but abandoned. Miró joined the procession, the music building inevitably to a climax before both groups returned to their introductory material; a quiet ending which left the conflict of the work still unresolved. For the third movement, Welcher pulled out all the stops including rhythmic elements from “Dance of the Adolescents” from part I of The Rite of Spring, his one nod to the centennial. Following the initial onslaught, a calm section provided a break; a gathering of forces for the final push. A Gregorian chant of sorts developed in the violins, pushing forward and mimicking the inevitability of the barcarolle from the second movement. This gave way to big pizzicato lines traded among the players as trills erupted, both providing tension and effectively freezing the forward motion of the work. A high note traded between both first violins was caught in a web of pizzicato and served to illustrate the two groups locked in combat; a conflict neither side would win. Acknowledgement of this dichotomy came by way of another long held chord by both quartets, now spent, which ended the work.
Conspirare is one of the real gems of the Austin art scene. Their recent release, Samuel Barber: An American Romantic, made its debut at #10 on the Billboard Classical Music charts and is the most recent result of their $1 million dollar expanded recording program with the label Harmonia Mundi. Their Legacy of Sound initiative also provides significant funding for the commissioning of new works, and two of those works, If I Were A Swan and To Touch the Sky by Kevin Puts, were recently premiered by Conspirare with the composer on hand. Conspirare’s focus is always on the music, but their presentation is also compelling. As they have in previous concerts, Conspirare began by entering from the back of the room and populating the aisles for the first work, Rene Clausen’s Tonight Eternity Alone. The work began with gentle minor pentatonic melodies slowly cascading as two sopranos broke through, rising above the texture. As the piece closed, Conspirare continued to the stage to perform Steven Stucky’s O sacrum convivium (in memoriam Thomas Tallis). In marked contrast to the Clausen, the Stucky was rhythmically explosive and tonally ambiguous with symmetrical chords sliding up and down in the propulsive texture.
Following the Stucky was the world premiere of the first commission, Puts’s If I Were A Swan. Starting almost imperceptibly, the male and female voices traded staggered entrances, with the women ultimately yielding to rapid sixteenth notes in the male voices on the plosive “puh.”  At moments, these sixteenths were (Phillip) Glass-like as they appeared and faded, playing hide and seek as they traded places with other rising and falling lines. An eventual return to the initial texture intimated an ending, but not before the sixteenths reappeared, giving a bright ending to the work. This concert was part of the Conspirare “Signature Series” in which new works are paired with those that have become part of the Conspirare canon , so the remaining works on the first half were terrific arrangements of (and new works based on) spirituals. The second half began with the centerpiece of the concert, Puts’s To Touch the Sky. Set in nine movements, the work was described by Puts as his first “mature attempt at writing for unaccompanied chorus.” Based on the concept of the “divine feminine” manifest in many of the world’s religions, Puts found a variety of texts reflective of this phenomenon to use in the work. The smooth polyphony of the first movement, “Annunciation,” acted as a strong counter to the rising chromaticism of the second, “Unbreakable.” The third and fourth movements also had a paired quality, the former driving, pulsing, (recalling the sixteenths from If I Were A Swan) the latter gentle and quite short. The fifth movement was the longest and served as the centerpiece of the work. Initially evocative of early church music, the quasi-modal language and rhythmically simple delivery was quite effective. The 3/4 time signature was largely populated by a half note/quarter note rhythm which anchored the piece as the soprano line broke from the pack, rising as a string of suspensions played out below. Pairings not dissimilar to the opening movements followed, highlights of which were the whispering susurrus of the seventh movement, “Who has seen the wind?” and the high, clean, and pure boys choir quality of the final movement “Most noble evergreen” which, after a few cadential teases, brought the piece to an end.
The final portion of the concert mirrored the collections of spirituals, this time drawing from arrangements of Sondheim and Bernstein as well as folk music icon Woody Guthrie and local favorite Eliza Gilkyson. I attended the show on Sunday, but both Friday’s and Saturday’s performances of To Touch the Sky were recorded by Harmonia Mundi for an upcoming live concert CD. This recording will be produced in collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with a recording of Puts’s Fourth Symphony under the direction of Marin Alsop.
2011 marked the 30th anniversary of Texas Performing Arts, and this is the 20th anniversary season of Conspirare. Both organizations are shining examples of the world-class art that Austin has to offer; compelling evidence that alongside the spectacular popular music festivals, high-tech industry, amazing food, and dynamic lifestyle, Austin has an art music scene worthy of the world stage.
And these two groups are just hitting their stride.
** Dan Welcher is a professor of composition at the Butler School of Music at UT Austin where I’m a doctoral student.
2. Make no mistake; this audience knows its Conspirare canon. The concert program was divided into four sections, some of which had works listed in the program that were not played. For example, the first section had five pieces, of which only three were played. When it was announced that the Tarik O’Regan work I Had No Time To Hate was not to be played, a loud groan rose from the crowd.