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Strings on Fire

 Mark Menzies: from the islands…to fragments, REDCAT, February 6, 2017

                                   

REDCAT’s February 6 concert, “Mark Menzies: from the islands…to fragments”, was quirky, ambitious, lengthy and rewarding. At the outset, not all of the 240 seats were occupied; after intermission, another 50 were empty. Even for those of us who love music, two hours of solo violin/viola was daunting. But the more one focused on Mark Menzies—his calm demeanor, the skills he employed to navigate complex music, the remarkable range of sounds emanating from his instruments—the more involving the evening became. He also had a couple of surprises up his sleeve that no one in attendance will soon forget.

Mark Menzies is a ruggedly handsome New Zealand native in his late 40’s.  His exceptional three-page resume includes performances all over the world, collaborations with small ensembles and large orchestras, as well as premieres of many works written by and for him. Menzies was a professor at the California Institute of the Arts from 1999-2016. In that context, he curated a series of REDCAT concerts and brought a number of young, lesser-known composers into the limelight. London’s Royal Academy of Music made him an Associate in 2014 and he recently accepted a position at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, where he now lives for part of the year.

Nine modern pieces, written between 1944 and 2007, were selected for the concert. A casually dressed Menzies walked onto REDCAT’s black box stage as his pre-recorded voice described what we would hear first—Bela Bartok’s “Sonata for Solo Violin”. Sheet music was spread across three stands, facing the audience; the four movements incorporate often atonal fragments of folk tunes from Bartok’s native Hungary. The piece was commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin who fled Europe’s World War II conflicts and came to America, as did Bartok. An excellent violinist himself, the composer was asked by Mehuhin to revise several of the sonata’s most daunting parts. If the score lacks the richness of Bartok’s orchestration, it makes one pay undivided attention to the serious, single sound of a solo violin. Menzies superbly essayed the complex first movement, quiet subsequent passages and the challenging fourth movement finale. The warmth of Menzies’ violin and his ease at simultaneously bowing and plucking the strings was riveting.

In 1994, fifty years after Bartok’s work premiered, a fellow Hungarian emigre, Gyorgy Ligeti, completed a six-movement “Sonata for Solo Viola”. His earlier work incorporated native folk tunes but Ligeti became internationally famous (as did contemporaries Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio) with his modern electronic pieces. His somber compositions range from profound vocal works to the film score of “2001—A Space Odyssey”. Menzies played only the 1st and 3rd movements of Ligeti’s sonata at this juncture, perhaps with the goal of breaking up a long evening of dry selections. (The 2nd movement was played directly after intermission; the 4th, 5th and 6th movements came mid-way through the concert’s second half.)

Ligeti’s 1st movement can take a toll on most soloists: it is played on a single string, the viola’s lowest C. The fingering and harmonic aspects of the next five movements are equally tricky but nothing seemed too difficult for Menzies’ capable hands. Ligeti wrote the sonata over a span of four years which may explain why, to my ears, it lacks a unified “center”. By splitting it into three distinct sections for this concert, Menzies further weakened its core. But his program notes help to explain his reasons:

“A feature of the twentieth-century artistic accomplishment resembles collections of islands: as the century turns—into the twenty-first, and away from universalist assertions—it seems to me the notion of the fragment takes lyrical centre stage”.

The next two pieces, both for violin, both short, were preceded by brief voice-over explanations from the composers. “Atsinganos” (2007) by Helen Bowater, was based on recorded fiddle music by eastern European Gypsies and is part of her larger work called “Three Gentlemen in Red Jackets”. (The latter title refers to a trio of Gypsy musicians Claude Debussy enjoyed hearing at a Paris cafe.) The music’s resolution, just slightly out of reach, is what Menzies calls ” the ‘unsatisfied’ spaces of the extended sounds that descend into the music like the shadow of brief clouds”. Fittingly, REDCAT’s lighting during the concert’s first half created a sea foam-green patina on the stage floor overlaid with cumulous cloud-like shapes.

Samuel Holloway‘s “dualities” (2006), is another musical amuse-bouche. Once again, Mark Menzies offers the best explanation: Holloway’s “explosive miniature twists the violin’s capacity…only one step away from the tormented urgencies of the Bartok solo sonata fugue”.

The concert’s first half ended with an abstract curiosity called “Regarding chickens, death”, for violin and imaginary chickens (2007), by Carolyn Chen. Educated at U.C. San Diego, Stanford and Oxford and having spent a decade practicing on a Chinese zither, Chen surely deserves her B.A., M.A., Ph.D. and Fulbright stay in China. Never mind the whimsical titles; Chen is a grown up with musical intelligence, attention to detail, a vivid imagination and a reverence for nature. Her on-line notes are amusing, full of interesting ideas and worth reading. (“Every note a world” states a Chen aphorism.)

“Regarding chickens, death” was written for Mark Menzies. It has five segments, each about a minute long. The one-page score contains breathing intervals; a few bars of music and instructions on how to slightly alter the three chords. Also included are finger pressure suggestions, for the violinist’s left hand, and fanciful musings on some imagined chickens (along with bowing hints) for the right hand. During Chen’s voice-over comments, two young men joined Menzies on stage and lightly attached thin wires to both of his wrists, the elbow on his bowing arm and to the tip of his bow.

Thus bound, Menzies began to play almost imperceptible, faintly scratchy, slowly bowed sounds. Soon, in a sort of chicken coop coup de theatre, Menzies’ two assistants began to randomly tug on the wires they held—first gently, then more urgently. Pulling the bow tip wire affected the resistance Menzies needed to continue playing. When all four wires were yanked, his balance was disrupted, his body tilted and he had to take a step to the side. The surreal absurdity of it all elicited a chuckle from Menzies as well as the audience. As the house lights came up, the violinist, Chen’s ethereal music and the two chaps untangling the wires were given a warm round of applause.

After intermission, the REDCAT stage had a different look: gone was the billowy- clouds-over-green-sea motif in favor of more dramatic black and white lighting. Menzies , in a formal white shirt and black slacks, tackled the remaining portions of the Ligeti sonata.   And then he played a haunting elegy by one of America’s great composers.

Elliott Carter wrote the short, sweet “Mnemosyne” (named after the mother of the muses in Greek mythology) in one day—when he was 103 years old. Subtitled “Remembering My Wife, Helen”, the melancholy work, a hymn to memory, was played with stately elegance by Menzies. Carter left a big body of intellectual work, was a great teacher and deserves more of our attention.

An amulet is a small piece of jewelry or ornament thought to give protection against evil, danger or disease. “Amulet” (1992) is a musical ornament, written by Liza Lim, born in Australia to Chinese parents. Menzies coaxed some wild, sliding, chanting sounds from his violin, what Lim calls “stroking the instrument as if it were a gong”. Elsewhere, she explains that in her work “some unusual bodily actions (wiggly bowing, for instance) accentuate the impression that it’s the instrument playing/acting on the musician rather than the other way around”.

Aeolian Harp” (1979) was written by Mark Menzie’s mentor and played in his memory. In the program notes, Menzies writes: “For Jack Body, the doyen of New Zealand composers who passed away recently, the sources for growing his style were largely South Asian, particularly from the Indonesian archipelago.”

Menzies saved the best thing for last. And if not best, “Limites” (1973) by Vinko Globokar, was definitely the most startling. The composer was born in France in 1934, played jazz trombone in Yugoslavia, took classes in Paris with the avant-garde crowd and has taught music all over the world. A Wikipedia entry aptly describes what we learned at REDCAT: “Globokar’s work is noted for its use of unconventional and extended techniques”. In the program, Mark Menzies writes: “An abstract solution to the notion of schizophrenia, ‘Limites’ seems to become a continent of sound, consuming all the space with its craggy grandeur.”

Beneath Mark Menzies’ relaxed exterior lives a wild man, a penned-up Paganini, and that’s who emerged for the explosive finale at REDCAT. Five music stands, spaced about eight feet apart, were in a diagonal line stretching from the back of the stage to the front; sheet music rested on each one. Menzies retreated to the stand furthest back and held his violin and bow aloft, almost vertically. All of a sudden…BOOM! He began “sawing” his instrument, loudly, like a crazed country fiddler racing double- time through a reel. Then, again…BOOM! On every fourth beat, Menzies stamped his right foot to the floor and the sound reverberated through the theatre. He began to move slowly forward, from one stand to the next, but never stopped playing or foot-stamping.

Menzies looked at the Globokar scores as he passed them, bowing furiously. But at this point, the music sounded like a 1930’s speeded-up cartoon, or an amplified Jean-Luc Ponty in the 70’s, playing as fast and loud as possible. People in the audience sat on the edge of their seats, alert to whatever was coming next. Menzies kept bowing, moving, bowing, BOOM! By the time he was directly in front of us—all the way forward, playing like a man possessed—it appeared that his foot-stamping was raising dust from the stage floor.

That’s when we realized that Menzies’ bow strings were creating “rope burns” on his violin! Then, after less than five minutes, he came to a sudden stop, ending a really exciting performance. The audience stood and cheered for two minutes.

There was still a bit of smoke drifting above Mark Menzies as he left the stage.

 

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