It all started with Simple Daylight. John Harbison originally wrote the antithetical songs about love for Dawn Upshaw in 1998, with acerbic texts from his friend Michael Fried. The songs stand out in any program, and sparked a new and fruitful collaboration when composer Jason Barabba heard soprano Justine Aronson sing the cycle last year. But when scheduling got tricky and Valentine’s weekend seemed the most likely time to work together, the rest of the program grew organically from the juxtaposition of the logistically attractive date and the exquisite set of soured love songs. A challenge was born.
Synchromy, the local composer group that Barabba leads as Executive Director, promptly commissioned a variety of works in the same heartsick vein, resulting in a concert entitled “The Other Side of Valentine’s Day“, a program which eschews bonbons and rosy romance for the grittier, dirtier (still fun) and often more heartrending realities of l’amour.
The experience started at the door of the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo, as programs were printed like greeting cards and sealed into hand-lettered envelopes with a variety of sentiments, an alternative to the candy hearts we’re accustomed to this time of year. Mine said, “Bite me”, and a friend’s said “Go away”. They had our attention.
Starting with Song for Justine and Richard, composer Nick Norton introduced the soprano Aronson and pianist Richard Vallitutto with ominous textures, confirming that this is not a concert full of sweetness and light. With ongoing repetition of the word “never” through the first passage, suspense tightens and wandering single notes grow into rich chords that push against harp-like melodic motifs, expressing love’s frustrations with wild, delicious allure: “Never trust a heart so bent it cannot break”.
The program alternated voice/piano selections with interludes for trombone, with one piano solo in the second half. Barabba says he originally considered tuba as the voice’s alter ego, but with Matt Barbier available to handle the horn, it was an easy decision — one that paid off in spades. Tina Tallon‘s a silhouette of constrained motion gave us the first glimpse of Barbier’s hypnotic virtuoso skills, using tonguing and muting techniques that would leave a blind listener without a clue as to what instrument was being performed. The piece is all percussive, strangled sound and jungle-like animalism, and the audience ate it up.
Barabba’s Falling returned us to voice and piano, requiring feats of vocal gymnastics and color control, but Aronson’s shimmering urgency delivered, with wild leaps and pattering pleas of desperation. Texturally reminiscent of atmospheric experimental songs from a few decades ago (Rochberg particularly came to mind, but then, I’m partial), this work has a stylish storytelling verve of its own, and the closely connected duo kept us rapt, “impaled by something you cannot see…” then “never dancing, never landing, just falling.” Valitutto showed off some nice whistling chops, too.
Dante de Silva‘s Parking in Cars partners the trombone with sampling from 1950s-style cautionary tracks, warning against “parking in cars with the boys at night”. The sampled recording track includes drum set, bass and keyboard riffs, which combine with the live trombone part to dance right over the top of the preaching with on a jazzy breeze.
McCallum Songs by Nicholas Deyoe are settings of texts by Clint McCallum, a fellow composer from San Diego. Aronson is a rare soprano whose lower range sounds quite natural, even when growled between high, longing passages. Her vocal courage, the willingness to explore the score’s palette and allow her voice to crack, squeak, wail, howl and speak within the music, especially without apparent damage or loss of power, is impressive. These are songs for a young agile, voice such as hers, and Aronson’s clear tone is essential to their textural language. But it is her acting, portraying each speaker convincingly, which makes the storytelling so effective. It is Deyoe’s work where we start to see Valitutto’s interpretive skills most clearly, and the duo is well-prepared and confident in their execution. The cycle ends a cappella and packed with charm: “and as I turned, you grabbed me and kissed me.”
Finishing off the first half, Scott Worthington‘s Unphotographable is written for trombone and recording, this time electronica resembling classic UFO sounds from the B-movies of fifty years ago. The trombone wah-wahs and converses with itself, changing tempo and rhythm with the “RPM” of the track, winding down to a sad and lonely drone. The piece is well-paced and engaging, and the organic length shows excellent audience awareness: we have time to get caught up in it, but not so much that the more amorphous composition gets stale, and the audience went to find their intermission drinks with anticipation still in the air.
After the break, Barbier started with Giancinto Scelsi’s Mantram: Canto Anomimo for solo trombone, played with the voice of playful, down-home Louisiana soul. This is the only work on the program written by an “expired” composer (Scelsi died in 1988), but it fit right in. The horn spoke truthfully, extemporaneously, with a throaty vibrato and the wail of loss and abiding hope. Where Barbier’s playing is normally quite precise and controlled, here he also seemed consumed by the thought, swept up and allowing a few theatrical slips and clanks against the music stand that vividly mimicked the awkwardness of love.
Michael Finnissy‘s reworking of George Gershwin’s They’re writing songs of love, but not for me for piano solo artfully throws the performer into the aftermath, the drunken reverie after love’s reality. It’s an echo of the Gershwins’ sentiment, an elaboration in complex terms that sounds true and reveals the penetrating emotions behind the core message in a meandering left-hand part that ranges across the keys.
The next piece for trombone, Walk of Shame, is Valitutto’s, and uses sonic narrative so visual and full of strong comic timing that it could be an excellent silent film score: you hear the protagonist wending a way home through overtone-soaked blasts of brass color, using split tones and lip multiphonics (thanks, Matt, for help with these terms) to create a whole vocabulary of sneaky sounds, trying to avoid suspicion, running from pillar to post…
…and the evening wraps up with Harbison, the song cycle where it all begin. Aronson’s intensity is formidable from the Simple Daylight‘s start — do not cross this chick. The piano score is powerful and tricky, heavily laden with an alternation of wild emotive statements and tinkling responses. Valitutto’s sure handling of this rich harmonic material balances and is met head-on with the certainty of the soprano’s warm, shimmering sound, structured by rock-solid accuracy and crisp diction, but carried by clarity of tone and ferocity of intention. At the end of one of the songs the room was filled with intense awareness of the character’s pain that the light laughter heard through the club’s open door (thank you, #summerinfebruary) seemed an apt commentary, as if they were mocking voices in her own mind. At “my body remembers it”, the message is sensual and erotic, with the bitterness and resignation of a broken, knowing heart.
Synchromy continues to be a group to watch, with well-thought-out programs and a diverse array of imaginative musicmaking. Their next scheduled concert is part of the exceptional Music @ Boston Court series in Pasadena, on Friday, July 17th at 8pm. Partnering with Brightwork: newmusic on a program that includes William Kraft’s Settings from Pierrot Lunaire and works by John Frantzen, Christopher Cerrone, Jason Barabba, Vera Ivanova and Helmut Lachenmann. Tickets are on sale now at www.bostoncourt.com (and I suggest you get yours early).