The violin emitted a high-pitched wail. The cello contrasted the sound with a violent, deep, thunderous rumble. The flute sporadically interrupted with a breathy screech.
Each instrument’s capabilities were pushed to the brink in the Slee Sinfonietta’s performance last Tuesday at Lippes Concert Hall. The event, titled “Pan-Americana,” consisted of Latin American classical pieces dedicated to the Pan-American Association of Composers, an organization that exhibited composers throughout the Americas during the 20th century.
The program is rooted in metaphysical ideas of space, time and objects. For example, Edgard Varèse’s “Density 21.5” — a work for solo flute describing one of platinum’s physical properties — reflected on the materiality of sounds from different dimensions.
With this piece and many others, the music was purely experimental, prideful of its unorthodox sounds. It ignored melodies in favor of harsh, yet expressive dissonance. Even though it theoretically sounds like a recipe for cacophonic disaster, the works’ defiance of traditional classical music is the key to its success, as each performance resulted in excited applause.
Christian Baldini, the guest conductor, hoped to inspire curiosity as well as audience enjoyment.
“Some of the music we play may not be known by a lot of people, so my goal is always to give a little bit of something,” Baldini said. “If I had managed to pique someone’s curiosity, I’m happy. It means they’re going to go and pursue this kind of art.”
Despite the unusual musical environment, the musicians and conductor worked in harmony. They were not performing as a full-size orchestra where the conductor dictates the musicality, so the small chamber ensemble approached the music differently.
The partnership between the two main collaborators — Baldini and Jonathan Golove, the Slee Sinfonietta’s artistic director and ensemble leader — worked well.
“With a situation like this, where it’s a smaller group, for a conductor, it’s needed to strike a balance between working collaboratively with the musicians and still providing clarity,” Golove said. “It’s such a pleasure to work with [Baldini] because there’s a clear direction, but it’s not someone telling you that it has to be like ‘this’ or ‘this’ all the time. Because when there’s only six or seven people playing, we [musicians] feel more responsible for the music.”
This musical unity functioned as a connection between the past and present. While the event honored the works of past composers, it also celebrated the accomplishments of living composers including Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, a former Visiting Slee Professor of Music in fall 2020.
The performance’s finale, Zohn-Muldoon’s “Páramo,” defined experimental music within the context of Latin American culture. Based on Juan Rulfo’s “Pedro Páramo” — a story of a man’s journey in a ghost town — the piece is filled with constantly changing time signatures, almost like an unhinged musical clock.
The rhythmic difficulty and story added a sense of fascination, but the piece’s allure mainly stems from how it’s interpreted, emphasizing the program’s overall goal: to expand the ranges of Latin American experimental music and encourage the audience to form their own interpretations.
“Art is just a space where as an audience, what you’re receiving is really what you bring into it. So the [creator] gives you the kind of space to have an emotional connection,” Zohn-Muldoon said. “The work of art isn’t really communicating per se so in that sense, I think ultimately it would be really about the person and what they hear.”
The arts desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mylien Lai is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum. Outside of getting lost in Buffalo, she enjoys practicing the piano and being a bean plant mom. She can be found at @my_my_my_myliennnn on Instagram.