Zephyr Thursday, Dec. 7, at The Met
Zephyr did it again. Thursday’s “East Meets West” concert at The Met furnished fine performances of unusual music that Spokane audiences have come to expect from the Zephyr series. But the music and the musicians also furnished an insight into the qualities that make music of China and Japan so fascinating.
Even before a note of music was heard, the audience was confronted by a visually stunning backdrop designed by Civic Theater artist Nick Adams - a huge piece of Japanese calligraphy hanging between two dark maroon panels. This striking backdrop enhanced the pensive quality of Toru Takemitsu’s “Itinerant” for solo flute, a 1981 memorial to his countryman, the famous Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Rhonda Bradetich-Tifft made her silver flute take on the hollow qualities of a Japanese wooden flute. Beginning in the dark low register of the instrument, Takemitsu only gradually expanded into the instrument’s piping upper range and required the player to produce such effects as the quiet whir of flutter-tonguing, some startling multiphonics (humming one pitch and playing another) and for notes that “bent” downward or upward as they merged into another pitch.
Pianist Kendall Feeney, Zephyr’s artist director, effectively showed what a strong impression the music of the Far East made on Claude Debussy. From his 1903 “Pagodas” to “Pour les quartres” from the Etudes written near the end of his life, the delicate, bell-like sonorities and non-metrical rhythms of “oriental” music held a lasting grip on Debussy’s imagination.
Feeney was joined by soprano Tamara Schupman and violinist Andor Toth in “Three Chinese Love Songs,” settings of folk poetry written in 1988 by Bright Sheng. The light brightness of Schupman’s voice and her assured way with the scoops and swoops of Sheng’s exotic melodic inflections seemed quite convincing, whether or not she really knew Chinese. Feeney’s piano was most often used as a quiet, supporting percussion instrument. Toth’s violin, too, seemed like a folk fiddle fidgeting restlessly or droning nasally.
Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree” combined colorful variants of wooden and metallic percussion along with changing quantities and patterns of lighting specified by the composer. The work was expertly played by vibraphonist Bryan Bogue and marimbists Robert Rees and Mark Tietjen and just as expertly lit by Brian Ritter.
The work with the dullest title, Lou Harrison’s five-movement “Varied Trio,” provided the brightest variety of sounds and was performed by Toth and Feeney with Rees in command of a whole kitchen full of percussion. Harrison’s virtuoso writing for tuned rice bowls (played with mallets, not chopsticks!) and pizzicato violin provided a humorous contrast with the mournful Elegy for solo violin, accompanied only by a few strummed chords on the piano. Harrison evoked the characteristic sound of the tuned metal bowls of Indonesian gamelan by having Rees tap on away on inverted baking pans.
No matter how loud the music of this concert got (and it never got very loud), it always seemed to float delicately on the surface of silence, like the images of a Japanese watercolor seem to float on the surface of the paper.
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