A Concert with Michael and David

Sunday night, I had the pleasure of attending a concert performed by clarinetist Michael Norsworthy and pianist David Gompper. Program and performer notes can be found here. As Michael explained to me before the concert, two themes arose unintentionally as he and David were putting together the program:

Americana – all of the composers involved are or were American (Lukas Foss was born in Germany but spent most of his life as an American citizen).

Arrangements – most of the pieces were not originally written for clarinet but were arranged from flute, English horn, and soprano pieces.

Before the concert began, I looked through my program and found there were no program notes! I was afraid that I would be losing crucial information as I listened to the music, but as Michael and David took the stage, Michael explained the situation to us. Because of a printing mishap, he would be speaking briefly before each piece in place of the usual program notes. In his introduction to the concert, Michael also informed us of a third, more intentional, concert theme: friends. Michael has or had a personal connection to each of the composers on the program, and he called it “a concert of my friends, performed with my friend.”

First on the program was Elliott Carter’s Pastoral (here is a recording of the original English horn version). Michael prefaced the piece by saying it wasn’t “the Carter you expect.” Indeed, I was surprised at the piece’s simplicity. Carter composed the piece in 1940, early in his career. As the title suggests, the piece evokes images of the countryside with its simple melodies and harmonies.

Next was Three American Pieces (recordings of the original flute piece) by Lukas Foss. Despite borrowing melodic material from folk music and some Copland-esque harmonies, the piano part is far from simple. Michael gave David the advice to “play the wrong notes, but the right way” before beginning their performance. The first movement, “Early Song,” alternates two sections. The first reminded me of Satie’s Gymnopediés. I’m guessing that including a reference to a famous French piece near the beginning of his American piece was some intentional humor on Foss’s part. The second alternating section was a sharp contrast; the piano was very rhythmically active and loud, demanding the listener’s attention away from the now quiet and low clarinet. The second movement, “Dedication,” was all about the piano and clarinet blending. The instruments were frequently playing in the same register and sharing melodic fragments. The third movement, “Composer’s Holiday,” is a much faster hoedown-like piece with a clarinet melody reminiscent of “Dixie.”

The third piece was Nebraska Impromptu, written by Marti Epstein specifically for Michael. The piece’s opening juxtaposes a very rhythmically active piano part using the extreme registers with a very quiet and slow melody in the clarinet. As the piano calmed down to meet the clarinet, the two evolved into a homophonic texture, slowly playing chords together. This piece really pushes the clarinet’s lowest dynamic possibilities; Michael’s pitches were almost imperceptible at times, just adding color to the piano phrases.

Next was SchiZm, a piece by Derek Bermel. Bermel was recently a guest composer at UI for the JACK Quartet concert, so many of us in the audience were already familiar with some of his work. The first movement, “Field of Stars,” featured a lot of rolled piano chords and frequently brought the clarinet into its highest register.  I recognized some symmetrical octatonic scales in the clarinet’s melodic material. The second movement, “Puppet State,” was a little more virtuosic. The clarinet part was full of trills, wide glissandi, low register “honking” sounds, and flutter tonguing. Salsa and tango rhythms were humorously and seamlessly introduced several times throughout the movement.

Two more pieces followed intermission: Joseph Schwantner’s Black Anemones (recordings of the original soprano song and flute arrangement) and Robert Beaser’s Souvenirs (originally for piccolo). Both pieces feature lyrical clarinet melodies and are mostly written in melody/accompaniment textures. The melodic material was inspired by folk songs, featuring a lot of pentatonic scales. The fourth and fifth movements of Souvenirs (“Spain” and “Cindy Redux,” respectively) borrow heavily (or possibly directly quote) the “Simple Gifts” and “Oh! Susanna” melodies.

Michael and David’s concert was extremely accessible, featuring music influenced by the American vernacular style championed by Aaron Copland in the 20th century. The atmosphere was made even more accessible by Michael’s decision to speak to the audience before each piece. Listeners were able to relate to Michael’s personality and hear about his experiences with the pieces and composers. I decided to make the experience even more personal by sitting in the front row, and I could hear every time David tapped his foot and Michael breathed. It would have been nice to have this concert in a smaller venue to add to the intimate experience, but the performers’ friendly attitudes were warm enough to fill the hall anyway.

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