Two interesting concerts of new music took place Tuesday, one in midday by the Gremlins Clarinet/Bass Clarinet Duo and the other in the evening as part of the neoPhonia series.
The Gremlins Duo — Jon Goodman of Illinois and Tim Fitzgerald of Atlanta on clarinets and bass clarinets — performed a closed, noon-hour concert in a small classroom behind the main building at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center, hosted by clarinetist and KSU Assistant Professor John Warren.
The duo opened with “Black” by Marc Mellits, a Chicago composer with strong ties to Atlanta. Written for two bass clarinets, the relentlessly rhythmic piece is physically debilitating, as there isn’t much opportunity to breathe, but it has become an important part of the bass clarinet repertoire.
The Gremlins also played two works composed for them by John McCowen. The three-movement “New Columbia/Big Bay,” for two regular B-flat clarinets, shares some affinities with Mellits’ piece but has much more breathing space within its angular rhythmic patterns. “Ludes,” for two bass clarinets, was the first piece McCowen wrote for the Gremlins.
A self-taught clarinetist, McCowen was influenced by the music of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, but coming from an aural tradition of music, he began to learn to read music only three years ago. Thus, his two compositions for the Gremlins are, in Fitzgerald’s words, “spit out onto the page.”
McCowen is now is studying at Southern Illinois University with Eric Mandat, a mentor of both Goodman and Fitzgerald when they did graduate study there. Not surprisingly, a composition by Mandat, “Bipolarang,” was also on the program.
They concluded the brief concert with “Short Sonata for Two Clarinets” (1956) by Antony Elton, a fairly prolific but now obscure New Zealand composer born in 1935.
Gibson and Fitzgerald have a strong musical chemistry, comfortable with performing in very close quarters, their physical and musical interaction very much alive and in sync.
They will perform a similar concert at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 17, where they made their debut in October of last year, at the time flying under the media’s radar. Given that fact, and that half the group resides in Atlanta, we can now say in retrospect that four Atlanta-based alternative new-music ensembles debuted in 2012: Chamber Cartel, Clibber Jones Ensemble, Terminus Ensemble and Gremlins Duo.
Georgia State University’s neoPhonia series has a well-established history of presenting new music written and performed by both professionals and students, as was the case Tuesday night at Kopleff Recital Hall.
Violist Amy Leventhal and pianist Petar Markarievski opened the concert with the Sonata for Viola and Piano (1979) by George Rochberg. Leventhal is a graduate student in music composition at GSU, but before that she was assistant principal viola with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1990 to 2009. So, just like McCowen, Leventhal’s professional career as a performer long preceded her compositional studies.
A bit of a nonconformist, Leventhal performed wearing comfortable gray-and-pink athletic shoes, which supported her strong physical movements and intensely expressive playing. Markarievski, also a grad student, handled the piano part rather well in the collaboration.
As neoPhonia Artistic Director Nickitas Demos often does, compositions by a pair of students were also included on the program: “Massa Brassa” by Salvatore LoCascio, for unaccompanied euphonium, and “Here, We Wait” by Taylor Helms, for string quartet. Both works were performed by fellow students.
But the compositional centerpiece of the evening was the Atlanta premiere of Alvin Singleton‘s “In My Own Skin.” Its world premiere in 2011 was given by pianist Teresa McCollough in Brooklyn at Roulette, the downtown performing arts center.
For this concert, pianist Laura Gordy did the honors. Her playing is boldly expressive but without sentimentality, well suited to modern and contemporary repertoire. Among Atlanta pianists, Gordy is the closest we have to an Ursula Oppens. She has long been a champion of Singleton’s music.
Singleton, who has lived in Atlanta since his stint in the 1980s as a composer-in-residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, sets two competing sonic worlds in “In My Own Skin,” one of great measured deliberation, commencing with the work’s noble opening chords, the other impetuously spirited. These face off and dialogue with each other throughout, but the overall message is clear: Singleton is comfortable with both worlds, just as he is comfortable with both his Brooklyn roots and the influence of 14 years living in Europe before coming to roost in Atlanta. He is a composer who knows himself, comfortable in his own creative skin and his distinctive musical identity.