Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Night of Cello: Featuring the freedom and fun of contemporary Classical music

Justin Lepard, a cellist in the Lincoln area, was the driving force in putting together the program and concert for Tuesday, February 3, 2015 at St. Mark’s-on-the-Campus. Lepard has a passion for contemporary Classical music and hopes that this is only the first of many more performances of contemporary Classical music in Lincoln. 
Cellist Justin Lepard
courtesy of Myles Jasnowski and Justin Lepard

The Night of Cello concert featured the works of three contemporary composers: Nels Drue Daily, a Lecturer of Music at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, Jason Eckardt, a composer and musician residing in New York City, and our oft-featured Lincoln resident and composer, Kurt Knecht who was also the pianist for the concert.

Works of Nels Drue Daily

The program opened with Freight Train, a work by Nels Daily that was commissioned by Justin Lepard as the opener for this concert. The composer describes it as “an incessantly motoric and rhythmic piece that requires a firm hand from the performer.” That “firm hand” is certainly evident as the cello digs into the music with driving rhythms and harsh, energetic bowing. The piece is for solo, unaccompanied cello and certainly requires a virtuosic performance by the cellist. You can hear the endless energy even as the freight train seems to run into the distance and then approach again as the dynamics and range of the cello are explored. 

With something that is always a fascinating facet of contemporary Classical music, this piece enjoys the freedom of modern music to explore new harmonies and tonalities (or lack thereof) while focusing on rhythms and harmonies that serve their own unique purpose be it a mood, a picture, a scene, or even a color. Rhythm becomes the organizing and driving force above all else—and aptly so in a piece such as Freight Train.

Composer Nels Drue Daily
courtesy of Justin Lepard
Daily was also the composer of the second piece featured on the concert, Daydream. Here, the audience is treated to a different set of emotions and technical challenges for the performer. Much more legato than the first work performed, the audience member hears varying intervals in the melody, perhaps the wandering thoughts of a daydreamer. The piano accompanies, entering in slowly and then joining in for change of scene and color midway through the piece. The composer explains that this piece “is a meditation on two cradle songs. The first is mine, and the second is from Brahms.” 

The piano features almost an ostinato, a recurrent rhythm and shape to the chords—that suddenly stops, and a new rhythm, harmony, and color emerges. There is a certain repetitious feeling—but the energy and pitch continues growing to a climax! Then, a pause, a peace returns. The piano with mostly single notes and a return to a legato melody played on the cello. Quietly, and beautifully, it fades away.

Featured Piece of Kurt Knecht

The third work on the program was entitled El Café Iridiscente and is the work of Kurt Knecht which was commissioned by NMTA and LMTA for their 2014 NMTA Conference. When LincolnCMN spoke with Knecht before the premier of this work for cello and piano at the conference, he shared that he thinks it should be “super fun music” and that “most of it is not too heavy or serious. I think there is a problem amongst composers now with this issue. Beethoven wrote a lot of light music, but we never think of that because his ‘light’ works haven’t survived history as well.”

Regardless of whether this work “survives history,” audiences can certainly enjoy it today as Knecht interweaves his love of Latin rhythms, Ginastera, Milhaud, and Latin charts he played in jazz bands. The work is broken into four movements titled, “Rojo, Azul, Perla, and Morado.” 

Composer and pianist Kurt Knecht
courtesy of Justin Lepard
Rojo (red) is fast and fun. The sound is vibrant and features exciting Latin rhythms. Both the piano and cello exude rhythm and color. The cello has both legato and pizzicato moments and the piano features rhythmic chords that make you want to dance along. The music doesn’t slow down, but rushes along excitedly right to the very end. 

Azul (blue) is a little calmer than the first movement and gives a smoother Latin feel, featuring more legato in the piano. A sliding sensation is created—perhaps this blue movement reminds the listener a little of the waves of the ocean as we relax on a sunny, southern beach. There is still a rhythmic energy running throughout—an excitement that makes the audience smile throughout with the happy azul waves. This movement has a sort of aching ending with a slight ritardando as the cello’s melody reaches up and then sinks down for a gentle conclusion.

Perla (pearl) is another slow movement, the slowest of the four, in fact. The cello begins with single notes plucked—and the piano begins with sustained, arpeggiated chords. Can you see the pearl gleaming—round, smooth, and still? After that intro, the bow returns to the strings in a beautiful legato melody, still evoking the smooth, gentle color and shape of a pearl. It is the most reflective of the movements, but with an abrupt ending that reminds you of the fun that is at the heart of this work.

Morado (purple) brings a faster tempo—a more vibrant color. The piano and cello both dive in with driving rhythms from the very start. Still more legato in texture than Rojo, the movement is aptly named: purple is a vibrant and deep color—but exciting and energetic all the same. Once more, the rhythms and harmonies are driving and invigorating. The Latin rhythms are still clearly visible as the driving force as the movement carries the listeners forward to a fast and forte finale.

Are the descriptions apt? What do you hear in the pieces? At Knecht’s blog, you can find the recordings and video of this piece. Listen for the colors yourself!

Work of Jason Eckardt
Composer Jason Eckardt
courtesy of Justin Lepard

The last programmed piece of the concert was the work of Jason Eckardt. His interesting bio describes him as a jazz and metal band guitarist until, upon hearing the work of Anton Webern, Eckardt “immediately” devoted himself to composition. On this program, the audience was treated to a work entitled, A Way (tracing). A more serious piece than the one preceding it, Eckardt’s work has a very modern sound—once again featuring the driving rhythm and creative harmonies made possible by the freedom of contemporary Classical music. The solo cellist has his work cut out for him with the strenuous bowing and multiple stops required. The harmonies are harsh and rushing—and then a brief moment, they stop, another moment and the melody suddenly rises above for a moment of clarity and serene beauty before rushing back into the incessantly driving rhythm. The motion slows down, a few notes here and there…a rush back into rhythm…a pause…a note… The rhythm and notes coming and going require the listeners to keep their ears tuned — you have to sit at the edge of your seat. 

Think that modern music is awful or that you need tonality? No! Just open your ears and enjoy the freedom and blend of sounds and techniques that are influenced by history, by modern music, by the emotions and lives of those who write and perform them now!

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