Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
Aug. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde
The final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall, achieved something unprecedented in musical history—an avant-garde piece of electronic music that was pleasantly bland. Varèse must be turning over in his grave.
The work in question was entitled “Self Destruct,” by Jeremy Flowers (b. 1979) and “was conceived as a companion to stress and failed time management.” (Composer’s notes.)
He continues: “The first movement begins with a germ of an idea sneaking in softly, followed by a rash (sic) of excitement. After a period of crippling self-doubt, the melodic lines in the strings come together to state the fully realized melodic idea that was borne (sic) from the germ at the beginning.
“The second movement is slower, more representative of the moments of serenity one can find in seeming chaos. We return to the initial germ from the first movement heard again over a slowly writhing electronic ostinato. If the first movement’s development of this idea is by brute force, here it’s a much more tender realization.”
The notes state that the piece is in three movements, but the third seems to have disappeared. (Maybe that’s the one that self-destructed.) It is scored for electronics, operated by the composer, viola, two cellos, marimba and piano.
There seemed to be an element of improvisation involved at first, as the composer sampled the timbres of the real instruments and transformed them in various ways, including some interesting reverberation and glass harmonica effects. There was a good common-time rhythmic pulse throughout.
One could follow the construction pretty well, but the final result of the combined forces was a repeated, harmonic and tonal phrase that came dangerously close to elevator pop. It was all pleasant enough, but more perpetual motion than self-destruction. Perhaps it was intended as an antidote to negative feelings. The audience liked it, and gave performers and composer a standing ovation.
The contemporary composition was balanced by two well-played crowd pleasers: the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major (K. 293) and, as a finale, the Dvorak String Sextet in A Major (Op. 48).
It was good to hear Portland’s own Henry Kramer at the piano in the Mozart quartet, which is basically a miniature piano concerto without the overt display. He didn’t have much to do in the Flowers opus, however. The Dvorak was an ideal finish to the season, ending on an upbeat Czech dance that brought cheers from a large audience.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.