Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble performs

This weekend provided concertgoers a happy dilemma — trying to attend the opening weekend of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the exciting Saturday performance by Carnegie Mellon’s own Contemporary Ensemble.

The student chamber orchestra, conducted by Walter Morales, offered a varied program of exclusively 20th-century music by heavyweights like Benjamin Britten and Anton Webern and music by lesser-known composers Manuel Seco de Arpe (born 1958) and Carlos Surinach (1915–1997).

Whether or not the School of Music and the organizers of Hispanic Heritage Month were aware of each other, this concert fit into the month perfectly: The music of de Arpe and Surinach, both Spanish composers, was incredibly evocative and full of Spanish flavor and flamenco rhythms. Moreover, the School of Music has a huge contingent of faculty from Spain and South America, drawing from Spanish-speaking countries like Chile and Venezuela. Morales hails from Costa Rica. Longtime faculty member Leonardo Balada has often dealt with themes in Spanish culture and political issues of the last half-century in his compositions.

Surinach’s music is extremely propulsive, and it was loved by choreographers like Martha Graham (who got Copland to write “Appalachian Spring”). The Contemporary Ensemble performed his “Ritmo Jondo” (“Deep Rhythm”), which was full of flamenco rhythms. The music was incredibly evocative and conjured up imagery of bullfights. The amount of energy and drama Surinach generated was all the more impressive considering the piece’s tiny ensemble: clarinet, trumpet, timpani, snare drum, xylophone, and hand clappers. Marcus Kim was extremely accurate in the xylophone parts, hammering away at high speed with his mallets. Andrew Gushiken was no less impressive, pulling off the quick runs on the trumpet with the swagger of a bullfighter.

The concert also reflected some Austrian influence. In celebration of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new Austrian music director, Manfred Honeck, the School of Music will collaborate with the symphony in celebrations of Austrian culture. Second-year head Noel Zahler should feel at home, as he is of Austrian stock as well.

The Contemporary Ensemble will feature music from the Second Viennese School on each of its concerts this year, and this first program included Webern’s short “Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano,” which add up to just two and a half minutes. Since the works were so short, Morales could have his players perform the works twice, which is helpful in hearing music as “difficult” as Webern’s atonal pieces.
Morales explained to the audience that Webern as well as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, the other two main composers of the Second Viennese School, came out of the romantic world of Wagner, Brahms, and Mahler, and “their music is still expressive.”

What Webern did, however, was make his expression as concise as possible. Webern injected a world of meaning into every single note. He was as expressive in a quiet note played by the cello only as Wagner was in a sweeping melody scored for soprano and a massive orchestra. The two student musicians, pianist Ting Ting Wong and cellist Pedro Ludwig, both understood that, and their performance was engrossing. Ludwig was focused on every single note he played, and he clearly considered the nearly infinite degrees of bow pressure, speed, and dynamics that can be applied to each note over all of the milliseconds that make up the second for which that note is played.

The program also included English composer Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.” The work featured faculty member Douglas Ahlstedt as tenor. Through the years, Ahlstedt has performed many times with Carnegie Mellon’s different ensembles like the philharmonic and the choirs.

Britten’s 1943 “Serenade” is very often sad, but also is often very beautiful and luminous, and Ahlstedt’s pure singing was perfectly appropriate. The pacifist Britten drew his poems, all on the subject of night, from multiple sources including William Blake, John Keats, and Alfred Tennyson, and it’s fascinating to see how Britten chose to set the poems — which words he stressed. On top of that, it’s interesting to see how the music comments on the text, either heightening it or contradicting it.

There’s also more literal effects: When Tennyson writes the recurring lines, “Blue, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying,” Britten writes ethereal melodies for the horn that float into the highest reaches of the horn’s register, where the instrument sounds thin and pale. The horn is notable as it is emblematic of the military, and so the cataclysmic events of the Second World War cast a dark shadow over this work. Horn player Marc Zyla’s tone was always beautiful despite the difficulty of the music.

The last song in the “Serenade” is a Keats sonnet, which begins, “O soft embalmer of the still midnight, / Shutting, with careful fingers and benign, / Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light, / Enshaded in forgetfulness divine: / O soothest Sleep!”

Britten memorably emphasizes and stretches out the “get” of “forget” over several notes. This focus and distortion of the word reflects the speaker’s struggle to justify his war-time actions to himself.

Morales and the ensemble supported the soloists with sonorous playing and a weight of sound that belied the small string contingent.