From Bartók to Roens, a delightful study in “Contrasts” at NOVA concert

Tue Nov 19, 2019 at 8:47 am
By Edward Reichel
Steve Roens’ Countermeasures was given its world premiere at the NOVA Chamber Music series Sunday afternoon at Libby Gardner Concert Hall.

The title for Sunday afternoon’s NOVA Chamber Music series concert in Libby Gardner Concert Hall was “Contrasts,” and the four works on the program certainly lived up to that, since the thrust of each work lay in juxtaposing contrasting styles, textures, tempos, dynamics and articulation.

The featured work was the world premiere of composer and University of Utah faculty member Steve Roens’ Countermeasures for wind quartet: four short movements that explore the sonic and textural possibilities of four instruments — flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon — and juxtapose long lyrical lines with short, disjointed fragments.

The bassoon dominates the proceedings, introducing many of the motives in each movement, although Countermeasures is very much an ensemble piece, cohesive and well-conceived as it alternates between solo passages and various instrumental combinations to produce textural variety and contrast.

Utah Symphony principals Mercedes Smith on flute, James Hall on oboe, Tad Calcara on clarinet and Lori Wike on bassoon captured the intent and character of the work. Their playing was lyrical and nuanced, and it underscored the flow of musical ideas that binds each movement into a seamless whole.

Roens’ piece was followed by Béla Bartók’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano — a commissioned from violinist and fellow Hungarian Joseph Szigeti for Bartók and jazz clarinet great Benny Goodman to play. The three-movement work showcases clarinet to a greater extent than violin, with piano offering thematic and rhythmic counterpoint to the other instruments.

One of Bartók’s best known and more frequently played chamber works, Contrasts is rich in vibrant rhythmic syncopation and steeped in Hungarian and Balkan folk music. The opening movement, Verbunkos (“Recruiting Dance”), is robust, intense and dark: Lyrical passages break up the strong rhythms, but overall the mood is serious. The middle movement, Pihenö (“Relaxation”), is a wonderful example of Bartók’s “night music” — eerie, atmospheric and with a hint of unnerving disquiet running through it. The finale Sebes (“Fast Dance”), on the other hand, is a wildly furious dance that dispels the darkness of the middle movement.

Utah Symphony clarinetist Erin Svoboda, Brigham Young University violinist Alexander Woods and pianist Frank Weinstock gave a striking account that captured the drama, passion and fervor of the music. Svoboda in particular was stunning in the outer movements, displaying her technical chops to the fullest. And in the middle movement all three brought a somber, contemplative tone to their playing that captured the mood of the music well.

Svoboda also played the solo clarinet piece Dancing Solo by Libby Larsen to open the concert. The four movements comprising the piece offer dynamic contrasts of their own in mood, character and texture, ranging from wide leaps and quick figurations to seamless, fluid lines. The work is a tour de force for the player and Svoboda acquitted herself wonderfully, bringing each movement to life with spirited playing and lyricism.

Rounding out the matinee was Schumann’s Kreisleriana, played by pianist Andrew Staupe. One of Schumann’s finest compositions for piano, the work is serious and frequently brooding, with few moments of relief, and a score that places great demands on the pianist: The movements generally alternate between fast and slow tempos, and within each movement there is considerable diversity in terms of expression, dynamics and textures. 

Staupe delivered on all counts. He brought out the subtleties of the score expertly with a sensitive and intelligent interpretation that was nuanced and well-thought out. Staupe played to the romantic sensibilities that flow through each of the eight movements. He displayed virtuosity where needed in the bravura movements, and finely crafted lyricism in the slow movements. His reading had depth and definition, with beautiful phrasing and an expressiveness of the work’s contours.

The NOVA Chamber Music Series’ next concert features the song cycle Fierce Grace, with music by Brazelton, Kaminsky, Karpman and Reid, as well as vocal music by Halle and Asplund, and will take place 3 p.m. February 16, 2020, in Libby Gardner Concert Hall.

Leave a Comment