Friday, April 3, 2015

Crafty Stephen Cohn Premieres in Pacific Palisades and Pasadena

Composer Stephen Cohn with wind players in 'Aria for Winds' at Shumei Hall

Review by Rodney Punt

Most composers would be happy to have one commissioned work premiered in a year. Los Angeles based composer Stephen Cohn has enjoyed two in the L. A. area just this past month. The first (March 17) was Aerial Perspectives, for flute, viola, cello and piano as part of the ongoing Chamber Music (Pacific) Palisades series. The second (March 29) was Aria for Winds, for a quartet of winds that concluded the Clyde Montgomery concert series at Pasadena’s Shumei Hall.

Today’s composers often favor extra-musical associations to brand their work. John Adams, for instance, expands minimalism’s boundaries into topical socio-political horizons. His namesake John Luther Adams presents himself as the sonic equivalent of the Alaska wilderness. Thomas Ad├Ęs loves to play naughty with the English classics. Call the tendency high-class music’s version of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.”

Cohn’s style, by contrast, is today’s answer to the intense craftsmanship of eighteenth century composers like J. S. Bach and Joseph Haydn. His works don’t in any way sound like those of the Baroque or Classical eras, but, like them, they treat elements of music as intellectual exercises, constructing and deconstructing thematic material from all sides in a variety of tempos and keys. They may possess colorful titles, but they are really all about their own organic construction.

An old-fashioned sort of modernist, Cohn has as much fun slicing and dicing musical motifs as a cat rolling in catnip. Recent examples of his brainy-but-fun scores include Sea Change (2011) and American Spring (2012), both premiered at Shumei, the former now a hit within art music circles, and making the rounds of festivals at home and abroad. Cohn’s latest two works explore further potentials of his characteristic style.

Aria for Winds is, as Cohn describes it, a “joyful gigue in 5/4 time.” Traditional gigues are in 6/8 time. Thinking in terms of dance, the latter would be one foot for three under-beats and the other for three under-beats. Cohn’s rhythm, however, has the first foot with TWO under-beats and the second with three. The off-kilter playfulness feels peg-leg.

The work’s main theme (a melisma around a G-note introduced by the flute) introduces itself slowly, but is soon off on a wild romp with a plunge into frantic pacing (Cohn’s term: a “shock cut”). The tune turns upside down, is rhythmically augmented and diminished, and dwells in varying harmonies. Its three sections contrast outer movement extroversion with an inner pensiveness. Cohn nods to the kind of jokes Papa Haydn played on his audiences when his bassoon enters well into the work on the same high C-note that famously launched Igor Stravinsky’s Sacra du Printemps, raising the eyebrows of audience recognition.

Aria for Winds wisely employs only the four most nimble winds, giving the mellow French horn the day off. Catherine Baker (flute), Zach Pulse (oboe), Kelsi Doolittle (clarinet), and Alex Rosales (bassoon) -- associated with USC’s School of Music  -- had their work cut out, but deftly conveyed both the work’s craftsmanship and its complex charms.

The Shumei program was joined by equally fine performances of two other wind pieces that worked well with Cohn’s piece: Francis Poulenc’s spicy Sextet for Winds and Piano, Op. 100, and the most well-known work of the otherwise neglected late nineteenth century composer, Ludwig Thuille, whose Sextet for Piano and Woodwinds in B-flat Major, Op. 6, was charming in its retro-Schumanesque way. Another historic curiosity was Franz Liszt’s luxuriant, forward-looking piano arrangement of Beethoven’s early song, “Adelaide.” Pianist Hedy Lee lent superb virtuosity to the super-charged fantasy of anachronistic harmonies and deliciously padded chords.

The earlier performed Aerial Perspectives at Chamber Music Palisades was written for flute (Susan Greenberg), viola (Scott Woolweaver), cello (Sarah Rommel), and piano (Delores Stevens). The work’s rondo-like construction, with its initial theme an alternation between the notes E and G, is expanded and varied in melodic content, instrumentation, tempo and rhythmic scale. The rondo theme, the main protagonist in this story, commences a musical journey and meets other themes, returning to reflect upon them. But it never quite returns the same. Perhaps more than any recent piece of Cohn, a seeming emotional struggle expresses a desire to breakaway from restraining bonds.

As with many of Cohn’s pieces, augmentation and diminution (varying speeds) and changing rhythms are prominent. The composer describes it, “The offering of material in different rhythmic scales and orchestrations gives an overview of its meaning, hence an 'aerial perspective'.” The title of the work seems to clue, perhaps, an uplifting intention to bravely face whatever path lies ahead.

These main points registered in performance, but the balance too strongly tilted in favor of the piano over the flute, and, it must be said, ensemble rhythms were occasionally unsteady on Aerial’s maiden flight. With time and a little more familiarity, however, the work could prove to be one of Cohn’s most compelling.

Cohn is a careful musical craftsman, and his pointillistic scores can have the look of Augenmusik (“eye-music”) in both graphics and formal plan. On first hearing, tricky rhythms and dense lines fly by so quickly, the ear struggles to fully absorb them. When seen in score, the composer’s intentions are more quickly clarified and the ear subsequently hears them. For those who don’t read scores, repeated performances will surely bear fruit, as with all music worthy of the name.

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