The celebration of composer/conductor Gerhard Samuel’s 65th birthday was no retiring affair. Taking part in his own birthday tribute, Samuel conducted three of his own works, including a world premiere, for an appreciative gathering in Bing Theater at the County Museum of Art on the latest Monday Evening Concert.
On the first half, the German-born American composer led 14 members of the MEC Ensemble in the premiere of his “Apollo and Hyacinth,” a brief programmatic work in five sections that vividly captures the Greek legend.
It begins with a hymn in the upper register of the woodwinds and bells that slowly intertwines in ethereal dissonances. The music builds to an outpouring of melody, which nevertheless is delicately, airily scored. Then, isolated sustained tones float throughout the ensemble, eventually congealing into a coherent swirl, and the piece ends in mid-air with the cut-off of a rising line. It is a complex though readily accessible score, brightly colored, elegant and graceful.
After intermission soprano Miriam Abramowitsch joined the ensemble for two more works by Samuel, both settings of poems by Jack Larson, “And Marysas” and “The Relativity of Icarus.”
The instrumental forces in both works provide subtle, stark commentary and brilliant landscape for the partially spoken, partially sung poetry. The narrative quality of the poetry is given dramatic shape through a deliberate musical unfolding and striking word painting.
In “And Marysas” the percussion is used with particular effectiveness, its steady thumping and isolated punctuations--from woodblock or rattles--lending the music a ritual atmosphere. The wind is depicted through string and vibraphone tremolos that mirror, by hushed reverberation, the singer’s sustained melody. In “Icarus,” grinding strings, shrieking woodwinds, vocal shouts and whispers highlighted the poem’s bleak images. Abramowitsch gave clear and unabashedly emotional readings of both.
Samuel began the concert with music of the Danish composer Poul Ruders, his “Four Compositions” (1980).
This is an aggressively complex, jaggedly dissonant and rhythmic work overflowing with exuberant athleticism. It is loud, bright and opulent, it attacks the listener. The busy, atonal counterpoint is contrasted with simpler music: the macabre, metrical trio to the otherwise knotty Scherzo; a wheezing, medieval plain-song in the third movement. The whole is brilliantly scored--making the quotation from “Der Rosenkavalier” in the finale entirely fitting--and evidence of a vigorous, spontaneous creativity.
Samuel, as throughout the evening, led an alert and vibrant performance.