New York-based cellist Inbal Segev continues to expand her range. At her concert last week at Roulette entitled “21st Century Women,” she championed new works by contemporary composers.
A few years ago we premiered videos from her album of Bach’s Cello Suites; around the same time, I heard her perform another concert of modern pieces. Her explorations continues. The quality of the music in this latest program ranged from exhilarating to predictable, but her technique and sensitivity revealed all the works in advantageous light.
The concert opened with Gity Razaz’s “Legend of Sigh.” This compelling work traces a suicidal woman’s journey through despair, an enlightening dreamscape, and transformation. An evocative video clarifies the narrative, mingling abstract and concrete imagery. The music encompasses interesting melodic modes and orchestral textures, building to a curious roar that suggests a psychedelic happening. (For more on this piece, including a video, and other music by Razaz, see my review of a 2016 Segev concert that also included “Legend of Sigh.”)
Captivating in a very different way was Anna Clyne’s “Rest These Hands,” a transcribed movement from a longer work for solo violin. A hypnotic drone underlies a melody that suggests the Middle East. This leads to a sequence of dramatic arpeggios, which were executed by Segev with dextrous three-dimensional bowing, and anxious runs assertively played.
Electronics returned in Missy Mazzoli’s “A Thousand Tongues.” Mazzoli made some waves recently with her chilling new opera Proving Up. In “A Thousand Tongues,” written before the composer began writing opera, chunky blocks of recorded sound accompany the cello lines, then recede in favor of a section that reads like a slightly twisted romantic air. Recorded vocals join the mix, but wordlessly, illustrating the lines by Stephen Crane that inspired the piece: “Yes, I have a thousand tongues,/And nine and ninety-nine lie./Though I strive to use the one,/It will make no melody at my will,/But is dead in my mouth.” But just as the loud experimental soundscape began to overwhelm the cello, Segev’s beautifully sweeping tone emerged and reasserted its centrality. As in opera, melody in the end can’t be stamped out.
As a piece for solo acoustic cello, “Perhaps” by Reena Esmail provided another good medium to highlight Segev’s warm true tone and fulsome musicality. The music itself, though, came across as pretty, but not very interesting, with a bland film accompaniment. Having read the brief program notes, I wasn’t surprised. As a reviewer of new music recordings and concerts, I read a great many prose glosses on modernistic pieces. Describing or commenting on what is essentially an abstract art requires humility, and demands one not take oneself too seriously. I’ve observed that the more philosophically strained the commentary, the less impactful the music itself usually is.
That’s the case with “Perhaps.” The program notes, by the filmmaker, refer to ever-trendy philosopher Jacques Derrida’s conception of “perhaps” as a noun. Addressing a film – the one that accompanies this piece, I assume (but not Esmail’s music itself!) – it says: “Perhaps as both a noun and an adverb is a suspension that creates space to allow anything to happen.” (True, I suppose, but so does a silence or an empty page.) The note goes on: “in this sense, the concept for me is something that allows room for hope – something very rare these days.” Indeed so. If the images on the screen or the notes in this piece of music reflect those ideas, it escaped me. The words are too far from the meat of the art they’re meant to illuminate. End of rant.
The concert ended in more straightforward fashion with the “dance party” (Segev’s apt description) of “Spinning Song” by Dan Cooper, the program’s lone male composer. The title recalls a ubiquitous piece drummed cruelly into piano students of a certain age, but if you were one of those students, put that right out of your mind. Cooper’s rambunctious “Spinning Song,” originally for violin and electronics, cruises from beat to beat, rhythmic and percussive. In Segev’s energetic realization it glowed with a effervescent, tribal energy, a bracing end to a varied and virtuosic evening.