Music Review: American Modern Ensemble at the DiMenna Center

March 26th, 2013

What compels a composer to write a piece? Presumably there are as many answers to that question as there are composers to ask. On Monday evening at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music four of the five composers whose works were being played in a concert by the American Modern Ensemble took turns answering during an onstage interview midway through the show.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

American Modern Ensemble Robert Paterson leading the orchestra in his “Looney Tunes,” with visual counterpoint, at the DiMenna Center.

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Robert Paterson, a founder of the ensemble and the fifth composer on the bill, evaded the question since he was the one asking. Besides, he didn’t really need to explain what inspired his “Looney Tunes.” The answer was clear as images of the Tasmanian Devil, Foghorn Leghorn, Tweety Bird and the Road Runner, projected overhead during the performance, revealed his fondness for classic Warner Brothers cartoons.

Mr. Paterson’s music paid homage to the genre-smashing jump-cut soundtracks of those shorts without outright mimicry. He added his own clever touches: snatches of Messiaen and Charlie Parker in “Tweety Bird”; percussive water jugs to imitate the Road Runner’s tongue wags.

Two works played beforehand reflected two very different inspiration. Alejandro Rutty, the winner of the ensemble’s seventh annual composers’ competition, described a penchant for imitating sounds from life and insisted that composition should be fun, to compensate for the time and sacrifice involved. Both impulses were discernible in his “Black Box Bossa,” which cheerily atomized a sensual ballad and sent its particles buzzing, bashing and swirling.

David Ludwig said he felt compelled to write “Flowers in the Desert” after reading a news article about Antwun Parker, an Oklahoma teenager shot to death as he and another teenager were attempting to rob a pharmacy. Mr. Ludwig derived his response from Josquin’s “Mille Regretz,” arranging that Renaissance lament for his central movement and surrounding it with evocative passages derived from its melodic material. Mr. Ludwig’s writing was resourceful and emotionally charged; the violinist Hsin-Yun Huang, the clarinetist Benjamin Fingland and the pianist Stephen Gosling played with eloquence and passion.

Sean McClowry, a bassist, pop singer-songwriter and producer, described his Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra as a work still developing, one he hopes to live with for a decade of evolution. This two-movement piece effectively showcased Mr. McClowry’s prodigious skills as a soloist, including tastefully flamboyant improvised cadenzas. The ensemble accompanied him with jazzy bends, folksy snaps and Minimalist shimmers; in one particularly lucid passage during the gentle finale Mr. Fingland clung soft and close to Mr. McClowry’s fluid phrasing.

The concert ended with “Groundswell,” a similarly succinct, brilliant concerto written by Steven Mackey for Ms. Huang, who recorded it with this ensemble for her new CD, “Viola, Viola.” In seven brief movements arranged symmetrically, Mr. Mackey conveyed impressions of a mountain-climbing excursion in Italy, conjuring awkward footing, thinning air and a lingering moment of time-stilled awe on reaching the peak.

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