If the primary reward of experiencing new music is adventure, Wednesday's SONOR concert at UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium was a modest success. Two offerings by the university's new music ensemble, Shulamit Ran's "Amichai" Songs and Brian Ferneyhough's "Bone Alphabet," took auditors down unknown paths of sonic wonder. True to the best traditions of the UCSD music department, which is celebrating its quarter-century mark this season, these works scorned accessibility and reveled in daunting complexity.
Resident UCSD composer Ferneyhough wrote "Bone Alphabet" for percussionist Steven Schick, who premiered this tour de force with the poise and timing of an Olympic gymnast. The composer's dense, tightly-wound rhythms unleashed primitive energy into an intricate web of sophisticated counterpoint. Limited to a pair of mallets in each hand and a battery of seven untuned percussion instruments--mainly smaller drums--Schick not only focused Ferneyhough's grand design, but also prevented even the most casual listener from associating this percussion solo with the indulgent excesses of a rock drummer's obligatory riff.
Ran's 1984 song cycle for mezzo soprano and Baroque complement of harpsichord, viola da gamba and English horn seemed at first like an attempt to retrofit a Telemann vocal cantata with Expressionist fixtures. The Chicago composer, this year's recipient of the Pulitzer prize in music, took four unsettling love poems by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and surrounded each with a haze of sinuous, Oriental polyphony. Carol Plantamura seemed daunted by the angular vocal line and its recurring plunges into the voice's lowest range, but by the final song, "Late in Life," she warmed to the challenge. English horn player Susan Barrett brought an especially rich timbre and deft phrasing to her prominent part.
A pair of earlier Ferneyhough works surrounded his "Bone Alphabet." The 1981 "Superscripto" for solo piccolo, played with ample bravura by John Fonville, exploded like a crazy wind-up toy, its shrieking, rapid-fire bird song assaulting the ear. "Prometheus," a wind sextet from 1967, revisited those static, serialist landscapes that dominated serious composition in the 1960s. But like Franz Kline's dramatic black zig-zags on those huge white canvases, "Prometheus" cast a mysterious spell.
F. Richard Moore's "We" proved to be an extravagant occasional piece, an extended brass and percussion fanfare wrapped around computer-manipulated English and Japanese versions of the U.S. Constitution and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Eighteen players, including timpanists stationed in four corners of the audience and two computer terminal operators on stage, were required to perform this musical thank-you note to a Tokyo music college where the UCSD computer-music guru visited last summer.
Under the steady baton of Rand Steiger, SONOR opened its program with a clean, assured reading of Edgar Varese's "Octandre," a classic avant-garde opus from the early 1920s.