Oberlin Sinfonietta 9/23 Concert Review (Rubin Institute Qualifying Review)

Ancient bell drum towers implode in a multi-hued, heavenly city as happy rain drizzles down on a spring night. That confused image is what you get if you combine the illustrative titles of the pieces on the Oberlin Sinfonietta’s September 23 concert in Warner Concert Hall.

As strange as that picture is, it provides a sense of Messiaen’s Couleurs de la Cité celeste (“Colors of the Heavenly City”), the last and largest work on the program. The music and the description share a chaotic incomprehensibility, a surfeit of sensory detail, and a lack of any clear appeal. Conducted on the 23rd by Timothy Weiss and featuring James Howsmon on the demanding piano part, Couleurs is a cacophonous work overloaded with granitic brass chords, apocalyptic gongs and marimbas, squawking clarinets, and profane outbursts from the piano.

The moments of sublime beauty or ecstatic joy that exalt Messiaen’s best music are absent from this piece, austere terror instead taking their place. The piece wasn’t helped by the lack of a uniform blend in the brass or the momentary shifting of pitch that often occurred at the beginnings of chords, but Messiaen’s harmonies are so numinous that those difficulties are foregone conclusions. Howsmon’s remarkable ability to match instrumental timbres on the piano was often lost in the clangor of all the other parts, but that again was due to the score rather than the ensemble.

Thankfully, kinder music preceded Couleurs. Oberlin Composer-in-residence Chen Yi’s Happy Rain on a Spring Night demonstrated a potent dramatic sense, something that the Messiaen, with its constant aggression, lacked. Circular lines spiral ever higher behind startling melodic figures and their ensuing echoes in this piece based on a naïve Chinese poem. As tension rises, repeated notes undergird increasingly excited phrases. A final jab from the piano ends the exhilarating piece, which benefited from the exceptional cohesion and fine pacing of Erica Zheng, flute, Jarett Hoffmann, clarinet, Dana Johnson, violin, Jacob Efthimiou, cello and Zhixiang Wang, piano.

In a bit of conjugal programming, Chen Yi’s piece was followed by her husband Zhou Long’s Bell Drum Towers. Long, also a composer-in-residence, is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Madame White Snake. It is thus unsurprising that Bell Drum Towers is theatric and evocative, begging to be the backdrop for a puppet show or radio drama. Long creates a vivid sound-world, uncannily imitating rustling wind, ringing bells, and a festive street parade. Such scenes were engrossingly rendered by a mid-size ensemble, conducted by Weiss, but fifteen minutes of tableaux vivant eventually became uninteresting.

The concert opened with Mantle Hood’s Implosion for four percussionists (John Minor, Jackson Short, Liam Smith and Kelsey Bannon, from the Oberlin Percussion Group) on two xylophones, marimba and vibraphone. Despite its name, this is a gentle work, in which polyrhythmic patterns pulse underneath an amorphous melody with charming simplicity.

Bell drum towers, celestial cities, emotional rain and implosions: uneven and colorful images, and an uneven and colorful concert.

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