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Edward Cohen: 60th Birthday Concert

A Delightful Display of Serious Chamber Music

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff WrITer

Chamber music is usually an enjoyable and intimate experience, but seldom does it achieve the grandeur of big orchestral music features. However, there are masterpieces of chamber music that go beyond simplicity and clarity, setting forth serious music, full of tension, fervor and countless miniature question-and-answers.

One of the living masters of this kind of complex music is Edward Cohen, senior lecturer at MIT. His 60th birthday concert, which took place in Killian Hall last Sunday, made for an extraordinary display of many of his chamber music works, new and old. Great performances revealed serious, unsettling music, dominated by ample sonorities and minute yet intricate musical tapestries. An enthralled audience overcrowded the hall, applauding with enthusiasm for each piece and also paying homage to the composer, also present, by singing at the “Happy Birthday” at the end.

The concert opened with SONOS’s performance of Piano Quartet (1999). SONOS, comprised of Bayla Heyes (violin), Marcus Thompson (viola), Michael Reynolds (cello) and David Deveau (piano) gave a precise articulate performance, that admirably conveyed the fractured, yet unified nature of the piece. The three movements follow one another without pause, yet each one is made of disjunct passages that cover with ease the whole sonorous register. The slow movement particularly shows a preference for very high and very low notes, which together create an unsettling, even scary, atmosphere. The initial theme returns in the last movement to tie the piece together into a single unit that fades away in a very long, cadential coda.

Suite for Solo Flute is a piece in premiere that fascinates by its complex polyphonic sonority, even though there is only one flute playing. Written for Sue-Ellen Hershman (who also performed it), the piece groups the characteristic five movements of the suite in three episodes. The musical motifs, at first rhythmically simple, grow more complex and expand throughout the flute’s whole register as the piece unfolds. A difficult piece, it was performed very well, with precise phrasing and effective dynamics.

The piece that followed, Piano Sonata (1994) has already encountered a great critical acclaim throughout the world. An impressively complex piece, it was handled admirably by Geoffrey Burleson who delivered a vivid and accurate performance. The piece opens with a fast section, full of rhythmic impulses that build complex, dissonant sonorities. The slow movement rethinks the same ideas in a recitative-like mood, using chords spaced on the entire piano keyboard. The very low notes, often accented give weight and mystery to atmosphere created by the upper parts. A texture of chords supports the last movement, which unfolds slowly, in distinct episodes that alternate between the energy of the first movement and the meditation of the second. Overall, there are so many things that happen in the same time in this piece, and yet you have to take it very seriously to feel that indeed, something has happened.

Using the same ideas, but at a different scale, Five Pieces for Piano features five piano miniatures that try to achieve the complexity of a larger piece, but end too soon, as if the ideas simply disappeared. A convincing performance was delivered by Tetyana Ryabchikova, who expressively conveyed the meditative character of each piece. Each idea gains weight by avidly exploring the extreme registers, but they vanish before anything could have happened.

One of the most beautiful pieces of the evening, Songs of Enchantment (1997) brings together in an ad-hoc manner three seemingly unrelated poems, each one dealing with a different perspective of the excitement in front of miracles. The poems, (Sylvia Plath’s “Snakecharmer,” an Anglo-Saxon traditional riddle “Shepherd’s Pipe,” and an ancient greek poem “An Eclipse of the Sun”) span huge distances in time, places and meanings. Similarly, the music that accompanies the lyrics does the same things. An unusual sextet made of flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and cello supports the unsettling melodic lines.

The instruments play most of the time in sections that oppose one another. The woodwinds start each movement, whereas the strings play the interludes. Only the ending bring all of the sonorities together, aided by the piercing sound of a piccolo. This music has a natural beauty because it describes -- it tells a story. While the singer, almost reciting, reveals the lyrics, the instruments transpose into music the meaning of the poetry. A splendid performance of this piece was given by Pamela Dellal (mezzo-soprano), Sue-Ellen Hershman (flute), Peggy Pearson (oboe), Steve Jackson (clarinet), Hillary Foster (violin), Anne Black (viola), Michael Curry (cello) and John Harbison (conductor).

The concert ended with an early work of Cohen, namely Sextet written in 1961. Although at that time, the composer was only an undergraduate, the piece features intricate sonorities that anticipate Cohen’s later works. This sextet has parts for piano, violin, viola, cello, flute and clarinet and features, as if required by symmetry, six movements.

Every other movement is just a short meditative passage that connects the heavier, longer movements called March, Dance and Finale. Compared to the previous works performed in the concert, this piece explores a lighter, less complicated part of the music. The melodic lines are simpler and the harmony seldom digresses into incomprehensible realms.

Yet the expansive sonorous tendency is already present. The piano often fills in with spaced-out chords the tune-like chatter between the woodwinds and the strings. Repeated notes contribute effectively to the rhythmic drive that adds a surge of joy and enthusiasm that Cohen intentionally lacks in his late works. The performers from Five Pieces and Songs of Enchantment delivered a vivid, impressive recreation of the Sextet, accurately conducted by John Harbison. My feeling is that the conductor tried to stress the complexity and the weight that exists even in this early music of Cohen, making the piece to stand out as completely beautiful and original, even though, according to the composer, it owes inspirationally to Stravinsky’s music.

Enchanting and exciting, this concert clearly showed the range and the emotional power that chamber music can offer. Cohen’s music, complicated yet calculated stands out as one sort of extreme that often challenges our understanding. However, the blend of contrasts, the ample expansion of sonorities, and the minute dramas that each idea goes through become mere elements of profound beauty with touches of the sublime.