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ARCHIVE: Kinetic (October 2016)

Originally published 10/17/2016


Tonight, KINETIC, “The Conductorless Ensemble” opened its second season at Houston’s Midtown Arts & Theater Center (MATCH). The 17-member string ensemble performed a new work by Karim Al-Zand, Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations and Three Divertimenti, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Soprano Alexandra Smither was soloist in Les Illuminations. The group, comprised of Shepherd School of Music students, was founded by violinist Natalie Lin. They rehearsed for 25 hours in preparation of this concert, with Lin incorporating her musical ideas with those of other group members. This democratic approach enables and compels each individual musician to feel invested in the artistic outcome. The results were thoroughly enjoyable and at times thrilling performances. The performing space offers terrific sight lines, but somewhat dry acoustics.


Shepherd School composition professor Al-Zand’s Luctus Profugis (Grief for the Displaced) “is a lament that reflects the current European refugee crisis.” It includes a vibraphone that repeats a three-note ascending half-step pattern throughout the work, meant to represent “the refugees’ journey, their tenacity, courage and resilience.” Baroque composers used a falling half-step to evoke sadness or crying, but Al-Zand used a descending minor-third for that purpose. This motif permeated the piece. Towards the end, dissonant tremolo chords punctuated the texture, creating a sense of uncertainty. The music continued uninterrupted, perhaps expressing the refugees’ tenacity and courage. The performance was detailed and committed. Violinist Lin had several beautiful solos.


Les Illuminations is Britten’s setting of ten prose poems by Arthur Rimbaud, written and sung in French. Composed in 1939, the music is highly inventive and colorful, with none of the Romantic or heart-on-its-sleeve ethos typical of early 20th-century English music. In terms of harmony and texture, it sounds as if the 26-year-old Britten became consumed by his subject matter and wrote British music with a French accent. Soprano Alexandra Smither was alternately sparkling and expressive, as needed, in conveying the complex imagery of the poems. In the fairly dry acoustics of the hall, her voice was crystal clear and projected well, but I would have preferred a bit clearer enunciation to facilitate following the French text. Britten used his extensive knowledge of string technique to full advantage. The string ensemble played with accuracy and security, giving this seldom-done work an excellent performance. Ms. Smither sang a Schubert song as an encore.


Britten’s Three Divertimenti were performed by a string quartet. Cellist Nathan Watts provided a solid foundation, while first-violin MuChen Hsieh tossed off difficult passages with exceptional accuracy and repeated smiles of enjoyment. The quartet as a whole sounded quite professional, no small accomplishment in today’s world of high string quartet standards. It also demonstrated the depth of KINETIC, since only one player was a section leader.


The highlight and emotional heart of this evening’s concert was Verklärte Nacht, or Transfigured Night, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. Written in 1899, it is Schoenberg’s first major and most endearing work. Along with Gurre-Lieder, begun in 1900, his early works are steeped in the German romantic tradition of Brahms and Wagner. Those disparate composers provided alternate sources of inspiration for the young composer; the structural logic of the former and the harmonic language of the latter. Verklärte Nacht was originally scored for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. Schoenberg’s version for string orchestra, including basses, is performed more often. Since KINETIC has three violas and cellos, there were times when an extra viola and cello would have enhanced the texture and balance. Even without the benefit of greater hall ambiance, the colors and emotions the young musicians produced were exceptional. Near the end, where the poem’s characters become transformed by acceptance and forgiveness, the sound was achingly beautiful. That incredible moment was but one of several that included gorgeous solos and superlative ensemble playing. An added feature was the lighting, which began and ended the performance in total darkness.


Coda: Sunday night was a rare full moon SuperMoon, where the moon appears to be closer and brighter. While this could not have been planned, it nonetheless correlates with the text of the poem, where a bright moon is featured.

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