Pianist Sarah Cahill returns to New Music Works

Sarah Cahill -3-22-15

A solo piano recital by Sarah Cahill offered by New Music Works was one of several concerts to choose from between storms on Sunday, March 6. Returning to Santa Cruz by popular demand, Cahill is known for her performances of new music for piano. She has commissioned, premiered and recorded several works by living composers and by early 20th century modernists. This concert featured music by eleven composers who were active over the past 100 years.

The concert setting at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz placed the audience in a circle around the piano. The cavernous space in the church was then reduced to a more intimate relationship between performer and audience. Cahill is comfortable engaging with the audience to elaborate on the works and their composers. The seating arrangement allowed for easy communication.

Music by Percy Grainger opened the program with The Immovable Do from the 1930s. The title is a reference to the solfege practices that musicians study in music theory. A high note C is repeated rhythmically over the unfolding music. As page-turner for the recital, Michael McGushin was assigned to play the repeated high note. New Music Works Artistic Director Philip Collins was represented on the program by his 2010 work, Springing, in a musical depiction of a stone dropping in water and the resulting expanding rings. It is an effective piece that is attractive even without the composer’s description.

Although the NMW audience is accustomed to hearing new and difficult works, a program of new music can be challenging for any listener. Sarah Cahill’s approach seems to rely on the piano more as a source of color than as a percussive instrument. A work by Ann Southam, a selection from her Rivers from 1979 illustrated this point. An ostinato repeated note accompanies a sweet and gentle progression of serial tone rows.

James Tenney composed Three Rags in 1969, well before the craze for ragtime that attracted listeners in the 1970s and 80s. These were played transparently, with excellent pedal work that allowed the subtlety of the phrases to project cleanly.

Holding Pattern by Maggi Payne was commissioned by Cahill as a tribute to the early 20th century composer Ruth Crawford, and was clearly the most avant-garde piece on the program. Payne’s work often includes electronic elements as was apparent in this work. The pianist inserted three small devices on the strings, which seemed to generate a sound whose pitch was determined by the string where it was placed. The sounds were released by the depression of the corresponding key, and further controlled by the foot pedal. Clusters of notes were produced by the left arm on the keys, providing a setting for the electronic sounds.

Johanna Beyer was an early modernist composer who worked with American ultra modernists Ruth Crawford, Charles Seeger and Henry Cowell to explore new approaches to writing music. Little is known of her life except that she was born in Germany in 1888 and spent much of her short adult life as a piano teacher in New York. Cahill played three selections from her Dissonant Counterpoint, a title that refers to a compositional technique created by Charles Seeger. The selections explore the possibilities of two-part writing, and although quite angular in shape, were played with utmost expressivity.

Scherzo by Marc Blitzstein is subtitled “Bourgeois at Play” and dates from 1930. This was the most virtuosic writing on the program, full of rhythmic activity. Cahill handles the technical challenges easily while shaping phrases.

Israeli composer Eitan Steinberg composed Angel’s Steps in 1998 for Cahill. A single repeated note is the germ from which the material evolves. As in much of her playing, Cahill explores the expressive sounds of the piano.

Composer and conductor Bunita Marcus wrote her Julia as a tribute to John Lennon who wrote the Beatles song with the same title in honor of his mother. After her early death Lennon named his son Julian. The text of his song is intoned by the pianist over the opening notes. The work has a rhapsodic quality that fits Cahill’s style, as she gently draws out the vivid colors of the piano.

At this point of the program it is safe to say that all the music was likely heard for the first time by most in the audience. But with three pieces by Lou Harrison to close the concert, it was as if old favorites were offered. The first was Range Song from 1939, a raucous romp. The lively Reel For Henry Cowell also dates from 1939, but along with the nostalgic Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen of 1977 are recycled in Lou’s Symphony No. 3, commissioned and recorded by the Cabrillo Music Festival in 1982. Cahill obviously enjoys this music, and showed it by bringing out the playful character of each piece. Before playing the set, she demonstrated the tone clusters required by Harrison, using the forearm, fist, and flat palm to depress the keys. The trick is to bring out the melody while playing these clusters. It was the elbow, which often had the melody.

The Harrison pieces end quite softly, not the usual ending on a solo piano recital. Rather than a big ending to elicit thundering applause, it was a calm and refreshing close with the gentle sounds of Lou’s music. The audience was obviously pleased and demanded an encore. Cahill chose a short selection from Patterns of Plants by Mamoru Fujieda, a large work she has recorded on two CDs.

New Music Works next concert is April 16 at the UCSC Music Center Recital Hall, with music by composers residing in the Middle East. The annual Avant Garden Party is scheduled for June 5.

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