Classical Music Review: Duo Diorama

By Caldwell Titcomb

An amazing pair of instrumentalists gave a concert at the Longy School of Music on October 25. Styling themselves Duo Diorama, they are the husband-and-wife team of pianist Winston Choi and Violinist Minghuan Xu. These young players (he is 30 and she is 31) have been concertizing together for a long time, and exhibit formidable virtuosity

Pianist Winston Choi and violinist Minghuan Xu in action.

Although they perform the standard repertory, they are especially committed to playing contemporary music, some of which they have commissioned themselves. On this occasion the program was entirely devoted to recent compositions, including several premieres. Technical difficulties pose no problems. They seem to be saying, “If you can write it, we can play it.”

The concert began with the obligatory tributes to the still active composer Elliott Carter, who turns 100 on December 11 and has drawn lavish widespread attention all year. I have to admit that, although I admire much of his early neoclassical music, I find little to like in his output since the late 1940s.

Choi played Carter’s “90+” for piano solo, written in 1994 to honor the ninetieth birthday of Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003). This consisted of nothing but random pecking, and petered out at the end. Xu then played “Fantasy–Remembering Roger” (1999) for unaccompanied violin, an homage to the American composer Roger Sessions (1896-1985). This had the virtue of hyperactivity, complete with double stopping and left-hand pizzicati.

Iannis Xenakis (b. 1922-2001) was a native of Romania but was educated in Greece, where he was involved in the anti-Nazi resistance, fled to Paris, was sentenced to death in absentia by the right-wing Greek administration, and – also trained in engineering – was employed by the celebrated architect Le Corbusier. His “Dikhthas” (1979) is a boisterous piece that makes use of microtonality and glissandi.

The rest of the program featured the work of four living composers, all of whom were present to hear their music and take a bow. Martin Boykan (b. 1931), a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, is a longtime faculty member at Brandeis University, and was here represented by his 1994 “Sonata for Violin and Piano.” Two lyrical movements were separated by a scherzo played with a mute. The last movement exhibited some particularly delectable harmonies.

Derek W. Hurst (b. 1968) received a 2007 Ph.D. in composition and theory from Brandeis and currently teaches at the Berklee College of Music. Receiving its world premiere was “Gestreut,” a six-movement work based on an anonymous German text-fragment. “Gestreut” is a German past participle meaning “strewn” or “scattered.” The movements, in English translation, are: (1) Like the stars; (2) Like something sought; (3) Like something neglected; (4) Like light that shines in the rain; (5) Like the remains of an old recollection; (6) Like flotsam. Movements 1, 3 and 5 overdo the device of note repetition. Movements 2 and 6 are busy and employ intricate polyrhythms.

Also getting its premiere was “Translations: Three Chinese Poems for Violin and Piano” by John B. Austin (b. 1934), a founder of the Chicago Society of Composers and an occasional lawyer. Austin was inspired by three ancient poems, each a quatrain of twenty ideograms: (1) River Snow by Liu Tsung-yüan (773-819); (2) Jade Stairs Grievance by Li Po (701-762), widely considered China’s greatest poet; (3) Ballad Song of the Southern Dynasties (420-589, author unknown). Austin did not attempt to depict the poems’ literal words but rather provided a general personal response to the texts. (Violinist Xu read the poems in the original Chinese.) In the first number Choi’s hands were far apart and at times overpowered the violin playing with a mute. The second required Choi to reach inside the piano and strum the strings, and it ended with a strikingly threnodic section. (Austin says that I was the first person to write about his music – back in 1954!)

Composer John Melby

The program concluded with the premiere of the “Concerto for Violin, Piano and Computer” by John Melby (b. 1941), who from 1973 until his retirement in 1997 was a music professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This work, in one continuous twenty-minute movement, is one in a lengthy series of concerti for instruments and computer. Here Melby says he “attempted to exploit to the fullest the extraordinary virtuosity and profound musicality of Minghuan Xu and Winston Choi,” the piece’s dedicatees. At this first performance, the computer could have been more assertive (probably by just moving a dial); but the music proceeded to a splashy finish.

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