MOAB MUSIC FESTIVAL, “America: Three Generations,” Sorrel River Ranch, September 8; festival runs through Sept. 10, 435-259-7003, www.moabmusicfest.org
The composers represented at Saturday’s Moab Music Festival concert weren’t the grouping one would normally expect in an exploration of American music. Aside from Aaron Copland, arguably the dean of American music, the concert included music by Scott Joplin and Derek Bermel. It was an interesting combination that worked surprisingly well.
Joplin’s claim to fame, of course, was ragtime music. He was without question the greatest of rag composers and pianists, and three of his pieces were on the program, all in arrangements for chamber orchestra: “Ragtime Dance,” “The Entertainer” and “The Easy Winners.” The ensemble that festival founder (and the evening’s conductor) Michael Barrett assembled for this concert, and which included Utah Symphony clarinetist Lee Livengood, gave a fabulously vibrant and lively account of these three pieces. They played with spirit and captured the lighthearted character of the music.
Besides being a composer Bermel is also quite a remarkable clarinetist. His playing and compositions have been featured at past festivals in Moab and Saturday he once again did double duty. He played two of his works from the 1990s. The first, “Mulatash Stomp,” teamed him up with violinist Charles Yang and pianist Eric Zivian. The piece is a study in contrasts, and it was immediately obvious that the music was indebted to Béla Bartók’s “Contrasts,” for the same instrumentation, which Bermel said he was studying at the time he wrote his piece.
“Mulatash Stomp” is much more edgy than “Contrasts,” and it goes in several different directions – it’s jazzy in places, rhythmically complex, angular, and occasionally lyrical. The three players gave an astonishingly cohesive and dynamic account that didn’t miss a thing.
Bermel’s other piece, “SchiZm,” for clarinet and piano, is also an interesting combination of textures and styles. The work is in two highly contrasted movements. The first is distinctly Middle Eastern in sound. Its melodies are evocative and mesmerizing and the movement is focused solidly on the clarinetist. Bermel gave a tour de force account that put his clarinet artistry to the test.
The same also held true for the second movement, in which the piano (again played by Zivian) takes a more active part than in the previous movement. In its quick tempos, fragmented motives, angularity and almost angst ridden makeup this movement is a pretty wild exercise in maniacal playing, with Bermel and Zivian showing the audience their musical chops.
The highlight of the evening, though, was Copland’s Appalachian Spring, in it’s original version for 13 instruments. Copland later arranged the music for full orchestra, but the chamber version works much better – it adds a level of intimacy that the music craves.
The hand picked ensemble played with wonderful expressiveness and carefully crafted and executed lyricism. And Barrett’s direction brought out the nuances of the score. It was a vivid reading that easily captured the essence of the music.