by Melanie Wong
Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival has brought the contemporary music of living composers together with New York audiences since its inception in 1998. Last week CECNMF presented this season’s final concert at Symphony Space: a six-piece program performed by members of the contemporary chamber ensemble Cygnus. Each of the featured composers spoke briefly about their pieces—a helpful gesture that gave the audience a better chance to understand their music.
The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Laura Kaminsky’s Homage to Havel, a tribute to the Czech Republic’s first president, Václav Havel. Kaminsky, who is also Symphony Space’s Artistic Director, is a skilled composer who fully understands the capabilities and strengths of each instrument, combining sounds in a way that is both intriguing and unique. Her thought-provoking piece was electrifying throughout and Cygnus performed it with energetic confidence. In particular, oboist James Austin Smith’s lengthy solos accentuated his smooth, extended phrasing and deeply emotional musicality while violinist Calvin Wiersma’s extended solo in the third movement, "Velvet," was resolutely vigorous.
Fairouz’s work set three fragments of Ibn Khafajah’s controversial Arabic gay-love poems to music. Fairouz's sensual music combined Western and Eastern styles, including the use of quarter tones and harmonic sliding. Cohesive, in tune, and well blended, Cygnus superbly performed the beautifully written piece. But while they tried their best to come out of their Western shells, their transitions weren’t always quite effective.
Not as notable was the program's opener, Faye-Ellen Silverman’s Pregnant Pauses. Written for classical guitar quartet and based on the idea that a pause is time spent in anticipation, the piece featured countless and often lengthy periods of silence, which required an extraordinary sense of unity and awareness among its players. The work was a bit more academic than overtly listenable, and some of the lengthier pauses fell flat. Cygnus guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader, as well as guest guitarists Dan Lippel and Kevin Gallagher formed a fantastic ensemble—precise, energetic, and effective.
The program also included Frank Brickle’s Estat ai en greu cossirier—a seductive trio with an unheard-of range that combined soprano, electric guitar, and theorbo—and Larry Alan Smith’s An Infant Crying, a lengthy tribute to the death of his family member’s 11-month old baby. Soprano Elizabeth Farnum’s performance in both pieces was inspiring, as she effectively characterized moments of flirtation, excitement, urgency, and serenity.
Altogether, the evening provided exactly what a night of new music should: it experimented, expanded boundaries, engaged the audience in a thoughtful way, and enticed them to reflect on what they heard (whether they liked it or not).