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Child’s Play and Something More

Chamber Concert Celebrates MIT Composer’s 50th Birthday

By Jonathan Richmond

Child’s Play III

A Fiftieth Birthday Concert for Professor Peter Child

Killian Hall

April 27, 3 p.m.

Peter Child is one of our age’s greatest composers. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Child’s work is accessible, but he uses his uncanny ability to grab the listener’s attention to trap his audience in the depths of music that is profound, at times witty, and always humane.

Six of Child’s works were performed Sunday to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, and they demonstrated the wide range of his output and talents. The Concertino for Violin and Chamber Winds with its vivid harmonies and lively interaction between soloist and ensemble was a good choice for an opener. The violin music, freeflowing and intense, contrasts colorfully with the rhythmically rich writing for winds and timpani.

Dawn Perlner ’01 was outstanding as violin soloist, seeming to cope with the piece’s complexities with ease, and maintaining a high state of tension. A student chamber ensemble led by Fred Harris put on a similarly superb performance, each player establishing a close rapport with the soloist and with the dynamically-exciting form of the score as a whole. There was a particularly striking solo from Rahul Sarathy ’03 on trumpet.

Child’s Sonatina for Oboe is one of his most concentrated works. The composer seems to want to take the oboe to its limits, and the work shows that the instrument can be both physically powerful and lyrically rhapsodic. The performance by Montreal oboist Theodore Baskin was astonishing, showing endless variety and illuminating every detail in Child’s complex conception to gripping effect.

Bleak Light, four poems by John Hildebidle, is on the austere side, as its name suggests, but is revealing if you focus on the words. Child’s music to accompany Hildebidle’s evocation of holiday time in deep winter matches the spirit of the poetry, with meaning leaping out of the score once you let the words connect with the music. Baritone David Ripley was a wonderful choice of singer for this work, his performance clear and evocative. Arlene Kies provided a virtuoso piano accompaniment.

The Duo for Piano, Four Hands, brilliantly-performed by Evan Hirsch and Sally Pinkas, is exhilarating in its fantastic complexity. After a snappy opening movement, the second movement slows to a point where it almost falls apart, and the soloists knew just how to get the right effect of time grinding to a halt, while keeping the piece in motion. On a number of occasions, one of the soloists reaches inside the piano to dampen the strings being struck by the other player, and the effect came across strongly without any hint of gimmickry.

Child’s Fantasia, given its premiere Sunday afternoon, shows the composer once more exploring an instrument’s special qualities and taking them to their limits. The harpsichord was put on display on this occasion, and Child exploited the instrument’s brightness and quick-fire response to dazzling effect. There are elements of Bach toccata in this composition, and also some hypnotically repeating measures suggesting that we might be in for a session of Philip Glass. Child is just too inventive to let that happen, however, and the audience rapidly encounters a wide range of new ideas. The rag that turns up out of the blue is charming, and exploits the honky-tonk characteristic of the harpsichord’s action in a deadpan way. Mark Kroll’s performance had enormous zest and was delivered with striking precision.

I loved Prayers from the Ark, with which the concert came to an end. Child has chosen from poetry by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold in which Noah and his animal comrades on the ark offer up their prayers. The poems are narrated, and we get to hear the animals and their plaints in the music for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.

The flute, beautifully played by Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, flew evocatively to represent the lark. Jean Rife’s rude horn effects conjured up the heavy, plodding ox. Agile clarinet playing by Bruce Creditor put on display the youthfulness of a foal which is going to have a hard time staying still aboard the ark. Theodore Baskin showed his astonishing skills at coloring the sound of his oboe once more with a mournful prayer for a glow-worm trying to escape having too much light case upon its lowly existence. A combination of winds allowed us to share the claustrophobia of the goldfish locked in its bowl.

Alan Brody provided a crusty narration. He gave us the little pig grunts but -- a couple of brief stumbles apart -- endowed the whole work with a feeling of spirituality. Like so much of Child’s work, this piece can seem like child’s play on the outside, but is full of revelation to be found by those who listen for it.

The audience couldn’t resist a little bit of child’s play of its own as Peter Child came on stage and was rewarded with a well-earned, if not entirely harmonious, “Happy Birthday To You.” May there be many happy returns.