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The Magik*Magik Orchestra showcases The Collected at Old First Church

The "string quartet section" of the Magik*Magik Orchestra at Old First Church
The "string quartet section" of the Magik*Magik Orchestra at Old First Church
by Michael Strickland

Last night the Magik*Magik Orchestra come to Old First Church for an Old First Concerts program to showcase the work of four up-and-coming composers. These composers were members of The Collected, a group committed to advancing the publicity of recent music. In her opening remarks for the event, Kathy Barr, the Director of Old First Concerts, talked about the role that this series plays in providing a platform for emerging talent. Last night we had the music of four emerging composers from The Collected being performed by the combined emerging talents of the Magik*Magik Orchestra instrumentalists.

All four compositions fit the ensemble’s resources, consisting of a string quartet and a wind quintet, to which were added a double bass, a trumpet, and a trombone. There were also two guest soloists, the violinist Eric KM Clark and soprano Jacqueline Goldgorin. The conductor for the evening was John Kennedy, Director of Orchestral Activities and Resident Conductor at Spoleto Festival USA and founder of Santa Fe New Music.

This was an evening in which the uniqueness of the experience was established as soon as one entered the Old First sanctuary. Music stands holding the parts for Lisa Renée Coons “Isolation” were distributed evenly around the periphery of the space occupied by the pews for the congregation. The musicians thus formed a ring and encircled the listeners with Kennedy conducting from the center of that circle. The title seemed to refer to the fact that each performer was isolated and yet joined to all the others, not only through cues given by Kennedy but also, more fundamentally, by awareness through listening.

As a result, performance seemed to emerge as a dialectical interplay between following the conductor as “leader” and playing in response to the cues of listening, rather than looking. The result was a thoroughly engaging spatial experience, often creating bizarre echo effects that almost seemed to evoke a virtual space with reverberations different from those of the Old First sanctuary. Musically, the score seemed to be based on the “reflections” of motivic events, rather than the development of themes. One might then credit Coons for her acute sense of design, which transcended the grammatical conventions of melody, counterpoint, and harmony. While there was clearly a theatrical element to “Isolation,” the result was “all music” and inspiringly memorable.

The twelve Magik*Magik players then moved up to the altar for the remainder of the program, which began with Clark joining them as guest soloist in Denise Gilson’s “Construction Pieces.” Gilson’s score required Clark to work with electronic equipment for capturing and manipulating the sounds of his own playing. This amounted to a hardware-software configuration controlled through two pedals at the base of his music stand.

One could easily call this a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra in five movements, although the movements were played without interruption. However, it is a more collaborative effort than the formalized give-and-take of a conventional concerto. The score consists of composed, aleatoric, and improvisational elements; so the title refers to the fact that the music is being “constructed” by the performers in “real time.” As had been the case in “Isolation,” one could appreciate the extent to which listening played a critical role in that constructive process. At the same time, however, Clark was clearly “the soloist,” with his own virtuoso approaches to construction, often involving interaction with his electronic apparatus.

The remaining two composers on the program were co-founders of the Center for New Music, Adam Fong and Brent Miller. Launched in 2012, this has become a primary venue for those committed to both making and listening to new music. The founders are equally experienced as artists and as administrators; and, while managing this new space is clearly a demanding commitment, each of them had time to prepare a composition for showcasing through The Collection.

Goldgorin was the vocal soloist in the performance of Miller’s “Antes del Comienzo” (before the beginning), by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. Miller immediately established the bold sonorities of the full Magik*Magik ensemble to introduce Paz’ opening line:

Ruidos confusos, claridad incierta

a confusion of sounds, an uncertain clarity

What ensued, however, was a rather aggressive approach to a more delicate text that parallels the image of the poet lying with his lover at the dawn of a new day with the first lines of the Old Testament:

la sílaba olvidada del Comienzo.

the forgotten syllable of the Beginning

Miller’s bold strokes were then reinforced through Goldgorin’s emphatic delivery of the text. There were evident signs of difficulty in her Spanish pronunciation, which, in turn, seemed to lead to some confusion on the placing of stress (in which the composer may also have played a role). Nevertheless, Paz’ words still resonated within Miller’s fabric of instrumental and vocal sonorities.

More enigmatic was Fong’s “Concordia Pulls the Sea.” While Miller had provided the text of Paz’ poem and the compositions by Coons and Gilson had informative paragraphs in the program book, the only thing printed about this composition was its title. Fong made a few off-the-cuff remarks before the performance began; but he said nothing to offer any guidance to the curious listener. The result was a listening experience that was not particularly memorable for anything other than the seriousness of purpose that Kennedy and Magik*Magik brought to giving it a disciplined performance.

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