Corrected 10:32 a.m., Aug. 12, 2013
Alarm Will Sound made their fourth annual visit to Columbia last week and went where most orchestras fear to tread: they performed music by living, breathing composers. The two shows by the 20-member ensemble offered a surprising look into the present and future of classical composition.
Classical music has long been influenced by other genres. Last weekend’s shows from Alarm Will Sound incorporated elements of jazz, electronica and soundtrack music. The programs, performed last Thursday and Saturday at the Missouri Theatre, were especially satisfying for the pieces where Alarm Will Sound infused their own athletic energy into the composition.
For the 2013 installment of their summer festival, The Mizzou International Composers Festival - produced by the Mizzou New Music Initiative and part of the MU School of Music - adopted a new, less vague moniker: Out is the “Mizzou New Music Summer Festival” and in is the Mizzou International Composers Festival. While “new music” could mean anything, the annual series’ current title is clearly anchored in the classical tradition. Attendees at both evenings’ shows were treated to new compositions from resident composers as well as eight more who competed for and won a spot in the lineup.
If you came to the first program Thursday expecting to hear mainstream classical music like Beethoven’s Ninth or a Chopin etude, you may have left disappointed. For attendees who approached the music with an open mind, the evening satisfied. Pianist John Orfe’s 2013 composition Journeyman set the tone for the evening with wind, brass and string sections each getting quickly engaged in a riveting romp that could have come right from the soundtrack to a 1960s television western. Thomas Ades’ Living Toys (1993) featured a similar western swing reminiscent of a Copland composition. Rising and falling sounds defined the the Ades’ work. Moving beyond standard concert instruments, Alarm Will Sound successfully employed clappers and other percussive devices that punctuated the rhythm and lent the music some swing too often missing in traditional classical composition. I appreciated the variety of instruments and the range on which standard instruments were played.
Alarm Will Sound Managing Director Gavin Chuck contributed Cjern from 2007. While the work was clearly created for electronic performance, Chuck’s arrangement worked on violin, flute and bassoon. The piece meandered afield at times, yet sustained a beat that culminated in a frenzy of whimsical instruments. At one point a trumpeter played the gourd-based Cuban guiro.
Thursday’s set concluded with a pair of compositions from former teacher and student Augusta Read Thomas and Stefan Freund. Freund is a professor in the MU School of Music and is Alarm Will Sound’s cellist. His Unremixed (2005) was the most jazz-like of Thursday’s offerings. The piece was a rousing send-off for the Thursday set and left me anticipating Saturday’s follow-up performance.
If Thursday’s show was grounded in composition by contemporary, established authors, Alarm Will Sound’s Saturday set showed what happens when the net is cast far-and-wide in search of younger artists. The concert featured eight new works by the Festival's 2013 resident composers, including new compositions by Jason Thorpe Buchanan, Ryan Chase, Andrew Davis, Eric Guinivan, Elizabeth A. Kelly, and Mizzou's own David Witter.
Also on the bill was Wei Chieh Lin’s half-glimpsed (2013). This was an experiment in sound that almost went on a bit too long. The Taiwanese-born composer offered the most academically interesting piece of the two-night set. Groups of players built sounds to a crescendo then deconstructed them while their colleagues pursued a similar but varied path on their instruments. The piece featured long sustained sounds. One could hear the wind instrumentalists breathing hard as they tested their limits. The Saturday program concluded with a crowd-favorite: trumpeter Greg Simon’s Draw Me The Sun (2013). The composition almost immediately built a sustained tension between horns and strings, propelling the jazz-inspired piece forward. Simon’s winning, at times bombastic, offering was an upbeat conclusion to last weekend’s pair of shows with Alarm Will Sound.
Classical music aficionados hungry for a diversity of composition could do themselves a big favor by marking their 2014 calendar to check out Alarm Will Sound. They are already booked to return as the resident ensemble for the fifth Mizzou International Composers Festival in 2014. Dates and other details are to be announced.