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Composer's Laboratory

The Music Box

By Bertram Baldwin

Seven Harvard composers were represented in a concert Thursday night at Paine Hall. The general quality of the music was encouragingly high, and those lapses which did occur, particularly in the work of the undergraduates, were usually the fault of inexperience.

The program began with a song cycle for baritone and piano by Thomas Beveridge, sung by the composer, with Frederic Rzewski accompanying. The four songs, based upon a German text, treat each of the seasons in turn: Fall (prayer), Winter (song of the inner soul), Spring (creation), and Summer (music of the spheres). Beveridge writes in a modal style. His lyrical melodies, though expressive, are seldom very distinctive. The pieces contain an abundance of material out of proportion to their length, for the music attempts to follow every change of the text without being sufficiently integrated. The form of the songs, as a result, is generally weak, although the first, in which the piano returns at the end to a phrase of the introduction, is more successful.

Paul DesMarais of the music faculty played his Theme and Changes for Harpsichord (1953). This original work, with its jagged theme and unusual, repetitive harmonies and textures, is in the form of a French ouverture. The varied coloristic potentialities of the harpsichord are well utilized. So rich are some of the sonorities produced that the instrument sounds lie an organ, and, in certain harmonically brilliant sections, there is a suggestion of the contemporary French organ school of composition. Although the repetitive element in the style is sometimes overdone, the work as a whole is balanced and dramatic.

A trio for trumpet, flute, and piano by Frederic Rzewski was played by John Gibson, Karen Peterson, and the composer. In the three movements of this intensely dissonant work, Rzewski arrives at some very unusual instrumentations. The piece is difficult to understand after only one hearing, but there is always activity, the music is always going somewhere, even when the direction is unclear. In spirit, if not to the note, the trio is a twelve-tone work, in the style of Schoenberg and his disciples. This performance was not altogether successful. Rzewski was too heavy-handed at times, and John Gibson lacked assurance. Karen Peterson, however, managed the flut part well.

A two-piano reduction of Claudio spies Music for a Ballet, an orchestral score which won the 1956 Nadia Boulanger Prize, was performed by Ann Besser and Rzewski. The work is in four movements--Prelude, Vivace, Pantomine, and Pas d'action. It is impossible to judge a symphonic piece fairly after hearing it on the piano. The repeated-chord figurations which were so annoying would probably have been effective, had they been lightly chanted by a woodwind choir (or even played much more softly on the pianos). The melodies that could be heard above the accompanimental material were often charming and expressive--but this work ought to be heard as it was intended.

Stephen Addiss conducted his Suite for Seven Instruments (string quartet, clarinet, flute, and oboe). Dry harmonies and bright melodies pervade the five short movements of this piece. The music is not consistently good, though, and it fails to give the effect of very careful construction. Yet there is humor and originality in certain passages, such as the hoarse Chorale, and the final unorthodox Fugue with its playful theme. The work suffered from the performance, for the strings were not in good tune.

John Austin, whose music is familiar to Harvard audiences, was represented by two sets of pieces: Five Settings of a Locrian chorale, for piano, and Four Modal Canons, for two violins and viola. The first group is not very good; the second, much better. Austin's piano music is an agglomeration of modal progressions, cast in big thick chords insensitively connected. There is nothing particularly cerebral in his style. Little is said. The same applies to the Canons. There-part canon at the unison or octave is difficult to write, since the harmonies during the imitations are somewhat limited to those implicit in the statements. The problem of gaining tonal variety is hardly met in Austin's canons; their only virtue is smooth voice writing.

The final work, Piano Sonata No. 2 in E-flat by Allan Sapp, was played by the composer. The movements are: Larghetto, Allegro Molto, Andantino, and Allegro. This is an intensity about it that commands attention. Something is being said that is worth listening to, particularly in the faster movements, where brilliant figurations and subtle rhythms sustain a motion that has few lapses. The slower sections are less interesting, the Larghetto being the least successful of the movements. The Andantino, quiet and comparatively consonant, is sometimes a little too sweet and sometimes a bit irrelevant. On the whole, though, the Sonata in E-flat has sincerity and strength.

Stephen Addiss and Frederic Rzewski, of the Composer's Laboratory, planned and organized this program, to give composers at Harvard a much-needed opportunity to have their works performed before an audience. That music of quality is being produced, both in the faculty and the student body, was fully demonstrated.

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