New Music Disaster Averted

Preludes to Disaster was the formidable title of a concert of contemporary Danish and Icelandic Music that featured works by composers Anders Brødsgaard (b. 1955), Steingrimur Rohloff (b. 1971), and Peter Bruun (b. 1968). Works by the latter two composers were world premieres co-commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Players and FIGURA. While the concert, which concluded the first weekend of Icebreaker V: Songs of Love and War at On the Boards, could have been a calamitous event, the works were well-performed, musically intriguing, and deceptively complex.

The Sunday evening concert began with Brødsgaard's Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs). The songs were performed by FIGURA, a music and theatre ensemble based in Copenhagen, which included mezzo-soprano Helene Gjerris, accordion player Frode Anderson, bassist Jesper Egelund, and percussionist Frans Hansen. Paul Taub from the Seattle Chamber Players joined them on flute and piccolo. Each number of the 10-song work was introduced by the charming Gjerris. Some songs were brief such as Nachtbild (Night Image), a sprechstimme number with all the musicians speaking, stomping, and clapping. Other songs were longer such as Der Hecht (The Pike), a musical pastiche that went from a jazz lounge-style to a drinking song to other stylistic genres. Galgenlieder had the feel of a German song cycle about death that was lovingly unsentimental, humorously imaginative, and performed with finesse.

Galgenlieder was well-paired with the first world premiere on the program Stadig ikke/endu ikke (Still not/not yet). This quiet, rhythmically intricate composition by Rohloff was sung in English to great effect by Gjerris. FIGURA added bass clarinetist Anna Klett and the Seattle Chamber Players added violinist Mikhail Shmidt, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, and cellist David Sabee. Swedish-born/Copenhagen-based conductor Erik Jakobsson joined them on this evocative work. The sparse English text was sometimes spoken and sometimes sung by Gjerris in a low tessitura. The inhale/exhale ending amplified by the wind instruments was particularly effective for this sensual work.

After intermission, bassist Egelund performed a solo called Hit Upon. The work was misnamed a solo as there was a recording of string bass sounds that the acoustic bass performed with. This distracted some of the audience as they tried to figure out the relationship between the live bass with the recorded bass. Much of the work seemed like an exercise in extended string bass techniques, but by the end the music was integrated. At any rate, it was a pleasure to experience Egelund as he performed wearing headphones, like a rock star in a studio.

The final work and second world premiere on the concert, Preludes to Disaster by Bruun, was full of intriguing sounds within shifting tonal textures. The ensemble conducted by Jakobsson expertly layered the tuneful melodies with repetitive canons to sound lush and full. Again, Gjerris displayed versatility by singing with delicacy and power. Even the alarm bells and high vocal melismas sounded beautiful. Overall, Preludes to Disaster, the premiered composition as well as the entire concert, averted any feeling of a contemporary-classical-music-concert-gone-wrong. There were no new music casualties in the audience of about 130 people, but rather ears curious to hear more new music from Denmark and Iceland.

Dedicated to intercultural collaboration, Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world. He teaches in Performing Arts & Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

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