On Sunday, Rochester's Studio 180 -- a posh Chelsea-style gallery space meets homey hipster loft on St. Paul Street -- was the sight of Sound ExChange's latest concert event. The thoughtful, engaging, and ever-accessible concert of contemporary classical chamber music featured a new but highly recognizable ensemble, HEX. Comprised of the original Sound ExChange lineup -- violinists Molly Germer and Lili Sarayrah, percussionist Kurt Fedde, violist Alexander Peña, and cellist Nadine Sherman -- minus vocalist and ukulele player Matthew Cox, HEX's debut performance focused on chordal textures and harmonic movement rather than overt melody.
Fedde's "Fuzzy Monsters" was easily the most impressive and affecting piece of the evening. Beginning with a pretty yet unsettling ostinato provided by two toy pianos and bells, the music found its groove in a minimalist style made legendary by the likes of composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. With the harmonic bedrock in place, the string quartet within HEX etched out exquisite and intricate rhythmic interplay. The six players divided themselves into pairs, and the close-quarters playing and physical movement that ensued brought out compelling dialogues akin to the intensity of a dramatic theater work. A lot of the credit here goes to Nigel Maister, whose staging gave the unrelenting and deeply beautiful "Fuzzy Monsters" a multi-dimensional depth it would not have possessed in a conventional concert performance.
Fedde's compositions provided the clear programmatic focal point of the concert. The percussionist-composer's "In this Room" utilized whirring bike wheels, mournful melodicas, and the ethereal tones of a vibraphone (bowed like a string instrument) to create a kind of musical cocoon inside which the vibrant harmonies and breath-inspired rhythms of the strings could thrive.
Both of these works felt like seductive and immersive vignettes, but I wanted to experience the sounds on a larger scale and for a longer period of time. Composer and Tigue band member Matt Evans gave the audience just that with "Still Life No. 3," a piece commissioned expressly for this concert.
This ambient composition sounded like the soundtrack to watching a prismatic butterfly fluttering slowly in amber. There was a static beauty at work, and the vibraphone and prerecorded strings introduced themselves to the ear in the way one might encounter a three-dimensional art installation by walking around, amongst, and through it. The implication of visual art is unsurprising, given the composer's use of minimalist painters like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still as inspiration. Unlike in Fedde's music, Evans's use of harmonic textures sounded more sheer and transparent, less woven, dense, and opaque. Complete with subtle elements of drone music, "Still Life No. 3" was more like a momentary soundscape than a formal composition.
The visual art connection was prevalent throughout the concert, most noticeably in Fedde's "Coincidence," another exclusive commission for the program. Along with two violins, the bowed vibraphone returned as enigmatic video projections by the artist Xuan blanketed the wall behind the performers. The swirling, hypnotic music reinforced the mesmerizing quality of the visuals: rectangles flew across the wall and circles spun in an ever-changing constellation of geometric shapes and abstract expressionist patterns. These shapes eventually got larger and larger, and soon the patterns formed began to look as if the colors of Kandinsky had melded with the textures and patterns of de Kooning, all before transitioning into a sort of technicolor Rorschach test. Like the visuals, the music was prone to dynamic bursts, and incisive rhythms carved out cresting sonic waves in a sea of thick celestial ambience.
Throughout the concert, there was no real distinction between stage and seating, and so the musicians felt as if they were playing amongst the audience members. This level of proximity and immediacy made the music feel all the more fresh.
The execution of all the compositions contained supreme technical polish and innate emotional intuition. And yet some pieces were more resonant than others. "Quartet for Heart and Breath," by composer and Arcade Fire bassist Richard Reed Parry, opened the concert, but it lacked the musical charisma present in the other works. Even with delicate plucked phrases and rich textural blend caused by staggered entrances by the various instruments, the subtle harmonic movement amounted to little more than intimate musical hiccuping. Simply put, Parry's work lacked the dynamism and emphatic conviction of Fedde and Evans's compositions.
Ultimately, HEX's generous performance of new compositions was invigorating in its expressivity, innovative in its presentation, and gorgeous in its use of harmony and ephemerality. It will be profoundly interesting to see what's next for HEX.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.