Performing complex and eccentric compositions, the UB Contemporary Ensemble displayed its taste for the unusual and challenged the minds of the audience as surely as it tested the abilities of the musicians Monday evening in Baird Hall.
The opening number, "Living Room Music," was performed by Jonathan Hepfer, J.T. Rinker, Derek Charke and Eryk Anspach. A John Cage composition, it contained four separate sections, each with a distinct flavor.
The piece requires performers to choose their own instruments and the manner in which they are articulated. The only guide presented is the range of notes to be played - dynamics and phrasing are not included.
The ensemble did not use typical instruments, save for the flute in the third segment, "Melody." Instead, the four students used regular household items such as books and boxes to produce percussion lines throughout each of the sections and harmonized their own spoken vocals to create the eerie but fascinating "Story" segment.
The sudden entry and exit of one or two of the performers during certain lines gave the impression that the composition was out of control and erratic, but it turned out to be the most focused and determined of the evening.
The second piece, "Sonata for Two Voices," also by John Cage, teamed professor Jonathan Golove, ensemble director, with Bill Sack and Anspach on stage.
A frenzied number with constant variations from low range lines to high pitch squeals, "Sonata" certainly demands your full attention and acumen. Golove and company masterfully ran through the chromatic tone ranges this piece requires, and its unpredictability kept the audience entranced.
Dreamlike in its lack of a true beginning or end, "Sonata" raged its way to an abrupt but powerful conclusion and was met with a generous round of applause.
Charke then returned to the stage to perform the third and fourth numbers of the evening, which were solos.
Beginning with Edgar Varese's "Destiny 21.5," a difficult flute work, Charke stole the show. The range required was immense, but Charke demonstrated he possessed the talent needed to execute it.
With an extended section of low pitch tones, Charke nearly lulled the audience to sleep, when suddenly, he exploded onto the high range notes with such force that his body shook as he played.
He continued testing the limits of his range, utilizing such force that his breath was audible through the piping of his instrument. He would continue in this fashion throughout, concluding with yet another display of high notes.
Charke then performed "Scrivo in Vento," by Elliott Carter, a musical representation of the poem "Petrach." The piece seemed to capture the paradoxical nature of the poem quite well, as it spans the entire octave range.
Another challenging tune, "Scrivo," also stretches the range of the flute to its limit, but was a bit more controlled than the erratic "Destiny," although not by much. Including unpredictable pace and range changes, "Scrivo" had a sense of desperation to it that "Destiny" did not.
Nonetheless, Charke was totally in control throughout the composition, moving through the number with a surgical precision. The climax included a drastic shift from high to low pitch, with some notes played sloppily for effect.
The conclusion of the piece brought the audience to their feet and the ovation was so loud and extended that Charke returned to the stage for a second bow after exiting the stage and the concert room.
The next to last composition of the evening, "Piccolo Divertimento No. 1," was far more upbeat then the previous pieces and showcased the ensemble's sense of humor.
Anspach, Sack and Hepfer returned to join Cynthia Jusko, Satoshi Tagaki and Magnus Martensson to perform the crowd-pleaser.
"Piccolo" saw the inclusion of a typewriter along with the standard clarinet and flute. The performers maintained a principle of constant harmony, unlike the other works of the evening where the goal seemed to be disharmony.
Cheery throughout, "Piccolo" saw the crowd laughing along as the typewriter clanged in time with the trumpet. The only somber moment was the passage "Anatomy of Melancholy," which, while sad, could not purge the lingering feelings of joy.
The final selection for the evening, Frederic's Rzewski's "The Waves," is scored for an unspecified number of musicians to accompany a speaker who recites, in a highly fragmented fashion, Shakespeare's Sonnet 60.
Each member of the ensemble performed a single line of music, completely in harmony, following the lines of the recitation.
"So do our minutes hasten," was one such line and the ensemble responded with heightened speed, following a lengthy slow-paced section. This continued throughout, with the instruments taking their cues from the words: starting, stopping, and starting again in a focused movement toward the climax.
The audience burst into applause after the conclusion of perhaps the most complex of the evening's works, and each member of the ensemble took the stage for a final sendoff. While each work was as challenging to the audience as it was to the performers, that fact merely enhanced the evening's success.