New Dimensions: An Evening of Sound Paintings Review

By Frank Richmond

The New Dimensions concert on the 28th of April offered a sampling of American works in a traditional form: the three-movemnt orchestral piece variously termed suite, triptych or symphony. The three composers, Dan Welcher, Steve Rouse and Richard Danielpour, all exhibited an interest in painting with musical colors and all included evocative descriptive phrases in their titles or movement headings. But despite those similarities, three distinct voices were heard.

The Louisville Orchestra, led with vigorous precision by Robert Franz, played with accuracy, conviction and clarity. Considering the importance of the New Dimensions concerts, the turnout at Margaret Comstock Concert Hall at University of Louisville ought to have been larger. The audience that did show, however, was rapt and appreciative.

The program opened with Dan Welcher's Prairie Lights: Three Texas Watercolors of Georgia O'Keeffe. (Conductor Franz explained to the audience that the three watercolors which inspired the 1985 musical work, Light Coming on the Plain, Canyon with Crows, and Starlight Night, were not really by O'Keeffe). In Welcher's piece the three movements were run together into one, so the divisions were not perceptible to the audience. The most memorable part of his work was the last section, in which repeated chords on the piano represented the stylized stars in the night sky of the origional watercolor. Near the very end, the composer created a confetti salad of glittery sound which was pretty but glib. Throughout, the musical materials tended to be bland, although the composer demonstarted an impressive transparency and command of color.

A far stronger profile was cut by Steve Rouse's Symphony No. 2, which received its world premiere performance. The movement subtitles by Rouse, a composition professor at University of Louisville, were tersely apt. The first movement, "Fanfare-Polka," pitted two ideas against each other, one an aggressive brass fanfare, and the other a grotesque, humorous dance which brought an audible chuckle from at least a few listeners. The two ideas competed more and more overtly, working up to a savage climax. The movement as a whole displayed a muscular style immediately identifiable as Rousian, with no apologies necessary for the debt to Stravinsky. The second movement, "Clouds in Slow Water,:" was also typical of its composer, who excels at creating a feeling of suspension in slow movements. Here water and clouds were evoked, not with the fuzzy formulas of recycled Impressionism, but with shrewd reflection on the sheer weight of water vapor in immense clouds.

Rouse is not afraid to emphasize the architecture of clouds, but this is not the rock-solid, static architecture familiar from the traditional literature of functional tonality, but architecture in motion, reflected in shifting water. There was something clean about this music, and impersonal, like forces of nature stripped of anthromorphism. The last movemnt, "Radiant Edge," certainly had an edge to it, even to the point of violence. It rounded out the whole symphony to an arch.

The last work, The Awakened Heart, by Richard Danielpour, was the most traditional of the evening. Danielpour demonstrates a commitment to humanist values, and his music affirms the value of the individual personality.

Accordingly, his music suggested narrative. Themes were transformed in an almost Lisztian manner without losing their identity. The style, which included enough polyrhythmic chromatic gestures and colorful textures to furnish the work with contemporary credentials, was nonetheless romantic in its basic impulse. The first movement, "Into the World's Night," featured a theme that appeared in a fully fleshed-out diatonic guise; the composer risked a nostalgic lyricism that lodged the theme in the memory like a popular song "hook." The theme returned in various guises throughout the first movement and in the last as well. The second movement, "Epiphany," threaded a chorale through musical adventures, some of them harrowing. The chorale returned in the last movement, "My Hero Bares His Nerves," which rapidly ranged through permutations of previous themes, including festive, folk-like ostinatos, and lurched to an end on a surprising E-flat major chord.