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Exciting new horizons in music

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2000


Is it just a case of millennium fever, or am I not the only concertgoer who has been struck by the amount of new or experimental music being performed lately? To be sure, Tampa Bay is in no danger of becoming an avant-garde outpost, but things do seem to be loosening up a little.

The Florida Orchestra played music of Frank Zappa and Robert Helps in the space of a month. This weekend, David Fanshawe's magnum opus for chorus and tape, African Sanctus, is being performed by the Master Chorale.

On a smaller scale, the Tampa Bay Composer' Forum and the emit series continue to generate new sounds to absorb. The Bonk Festival of New Music starts up next week.

Now there's the Contemporary Music Festival 2000, presented by the School of Music at the University of South Florida, which runs from Monday through March 9. It's an interesting grab bag of events featuring student musicians and faculty, visiting scholars and composers.

Among the highlights are Monday night's concert of electronic music from the Systems Complex for the Studio and Performing Arts, or SYCOM, under the direction of Paul Reller. Composer-in-residence Jan Bach's Laudes is played by the USF Faculty Brass Quintet at noon on Tuesday. The school's symphony band and wind ensemble will play programs of contemporary music on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively.

At noon on Thursday, Florida State University professor Jane Piper Clendinning will give a lecture on "Describing Structure and Content in Contemporary Music," and that night works of USF student composers will be performed.

All the events take place on the Tampa campus of USF. For information, call (813) 974-2323.

HELPS - When the Florida Orchestra gave the world premiere of Robert Helps' Symphony No. 2 a week ago, I don't mind admitting that I was flummoxed by the piece and didn't really know what to make of it. Of course, I had a review to write and managed to put together a few impressions for the next morning's paper, but I wrestled with my response to the work for days afterward.

On the one hand, I was drawn to the lean, crystalline textures of the USF composer's symphony -- the beautiful opening measures in lower strings, timpani and winds; the wind-chime intricacy of the Dance movement, taken at a tempo marked ironico ("ironical"); and the gentle dissonance of the slow third movement.

Structurally, the symphony's spare phrasing was reminiscent of the imploded note clusters of Pierre Boulez or Anton Webern, but there's a sweetness to Helps' harmonies that sets him apart from the 12-tone school.

On the other hand, I had a hard time bringing myself to confront the grim, death-haunted character of the final movement, titled Forebodings in Helps' apparently autobiographical scheme.

This sort of divided response is exactly what a new piece of music is supposed to provoke. The Helps symphony made me uncomfortable. Its meaning eluded me, I was challenged by the experience, and, most important, I wanted to hear the work again.

I had much the same reaction in December after the premiere of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan Opera.

My point is that the orchestra should think about revisiting the Second Symphony in a subsequent season, especially after performing it so well the first time around. A premiere is one thing, with the excitement and distinction of playing and hearing a work for the first time, but second performances may actually be more important in cultivating new music. It would be a shame if this symphony landed in limbo, as so many works do after debuting, whatever their merits.

Serge Koussevitsky, the great conductor of the Boston Symphony and a champion of modern music, routinely gave new pieces a second hearing -- sometimes even right away.

Perhaps the Helps could be programmed in tandem with his Symphony No. 1, an appealing three-movement work primarily known through a lackluster recording made around the time of its premiere in 1955. Music by related composers, such as that of Helps' principal teacher, Roger Sessions, might also be played. Helps, a superb pianist, could give a recital.

Delving into both Helps symphonies -- illuminating their similarities and differences, tracing an artist's development over nearly half a century -- is just the sort of enterprising project that could lead to a recording by the orchestra.

MORE NEW MUSIC - New Directions, the concert series of the Tampa Bay Composers' Forum, has another installment at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Palladium Theater. On the agenda are works by Peter Blauvelt, Matt Van Brink, Joan Epstein and other forum members, as well as contemporary masterworks by Lukas Foss and Bertold Hummel. Tickets are $8 and $10.

The opening concert of the Bonk Festival, which features electronic and computer music-making as well as conventional instruments, is at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Salvador Dali Museum. Tickets are $5 and $7.

MUSIC AND DANCE -- Ballet dancers Elena Martinson and Andrei Ustinov are featured in the Tampa Bay Symphony program, performing excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Conductor Jack Heller will also lead the community orchestra in Dvorak's Slavonic Dances and Brahms' Hungarian Dances. Performances are at 8 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall and 8 p.m. Monday at Mahaffey Theater. Tickets are $10.

Performances of The Mandinka Epic, a dance-theater drama from the Mandinka region of West Africa, are given at 8 p.m. Monday at Van Wezel Hall (tickets are $20 to $30) and 8 p.m. Wednesday at Mahaffey Theater (tickets are $18.50 to $29.50) by Ballet d'Afrique Noire.

GAY CHORUS -- Randy Leonard has been named interim conductor of the Tampa Bay Gay Men's Chorus, replacing Stephen Allen, who resigned in January.

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