Out & About: Uncommon and unconventional music

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Uncommon and unconventional are the twin themes of three of this weekend’s musical happenings in southern Maine.

Top billing goes to a string quartet with an unconventional approach to classical music. Brooklyn Rider is a moniker that evokes modern music; this New York-based foursome definitely crosses over into that realm. Portland Ovations is the presenter and Merrill Auditorium is the venue.

The University of Southern Maine School of Music has a couple of uncommon offerings this weekend in Gorham. Friday’s Spotlight Series concert features the tuba, the extreme low voice of the brass family. Dan Hunter, who graduated six years ago, is the feature soloist. Little of his program will be familiar to the typical listener.

On Saturday evening the school’s symphony orchestra will play a newly written piece that calls for a pair of old cast-iron radiators in the percussion section. And it will take more than a common radiator-banger to fulfill the composer’s wishes: Travis R. Ramsey’s score calls for three distinct sounds from these two radiators.

Brooklyn Rider

No, they don’t want to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. But they do want to sell you on the big idea that a classically trained string quartet can be a vital and exciting artistic presence that’s totally relevant to modern audiences.

The eclectic string quartet is named Brooklyn Rider, and it comprises violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen plus violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen. The four guys are frequent participants in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, a multi-artist consortium dedicated to cross-cultural experiences, plus they’ve extended that concept to their own performances by commissioning many new string quartets by modern composers who speak to contemporary listeners.

The curious name is intended to invoke memories of the Blue Rider group, a loose alliance of modernistic European musicians from the early 20th century that included avant-garde composers who explored new sonic territory such as Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Scriabin. The name also reflects the vibrant, multi-cultural milieu of Brooklyn, N.Y., home of all four members of the string quartet.

Brooklyn Rider programs typically juxtapose classical masterpieces with modern compositions. Their multi-faceted performances are intellectually stimulating, emotionally exhilarating and geographically borderless.

Portland Ovations presents Brooklyn Rider at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Hannaford Hall on Bedford St. on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

USM Spotlight Concert

Think tuba and most people conjure up images of lederhosen, Bavarian beer and oompah bands. Well think again.

The tuba has the lowest pitch of any of the common brass instruments, and it unfortunately also ranks lowest on many musical status charts.

Virtuoso tuba player Dan Hunter wants to change that perception too, and he’ll try mightily to correct all those misconceptions in a concert this Friday that highlights his instrument. His performance is part of the University of Southern Maine School of Music’s Spotlight Series, formerly known as Faculty Concerts. Hunter is a professor at the school and also a 2004 graduate.

Joined by pianist Sanae Kanda as accompanist, Hunter will perform works written originally for the tuba (no transcriptions) such as “Sonata for Tuba and Piano” by Bruce Broughton and “Three Miniatures for Tuba and Piano” by Anthony Plog.

“Bruce Broughton’s ‘Sonata for Tuba and Piano’ is a work that pushes the boundaries of what a tuba player can do,” notes Hunter. “It has a whimsical first movement, followed by a lyrical, sweet, yet intense second movement. The third movement is exciting, intricate, and rhythmic.” It has recently been turned into a full concerto for orchestra.

Anthony Plog’s “Three Miniatures for Tuba and Piano” was originally created for international tuba soloist and Indiana University professor, Dan Perantoni. Plog is an international trumpet soloist and a professor of music in Germany.

“It’s an example of what you would expect to hear from a trumpet or a violin, but is played by the tuba,” explains Hunter. “It has a fast paced, harmonically driven first movement. The second movement has an improvisatory feel, and sets up the audience for the excitement of the third movement. Since there is no real break before the third movement, it surprises the audience with its rhythm and upbeat tempo. The piece culminates in a chaotic frenzy with the tuba trying to keep pace with the velocity of the piano line at the end.”

Three other pieces, including a sonata for tuba and piano by Paul Hindemith, are also on the concert, which is slated for 8 p.m. Feb. 26 at Corthell Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus. Call the music box office at 780-5555.

Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra

An old house with an antiquated, and very noisy, steam heating system provided the inspiration for one of the most uncommon and unconventional works of the modern symphonic repertoire. It’s on the program this Saturday, when the Southern Maine Symphony Orchestra, under the aegis of the University of Southern Maine School of Music, presents its winter concert in Gorham under the baton of professor Rob Lehmann.

“The Lost Art of Steam Heating” is a seven-minute piece inspired by the old house that Travis M. Ramsey (a USM School of Music alumnus) and his wife purchased in Malden, Mass., in 2007. According to the composer, “we awoke many nights to the startling noises produced by an old steam heating system: radiators that hissed like demented teapots, pipes that banged loud enough to shake the floors, and a 1937 steam boiler … that roared like a lioness in heat.”

The piece is performed by a standard orchestra, but also calls for unusual percussion instruments including two old radiators, plus the recorded sound of a lion’s roar. The composer includes the following instructions for how to play the radiators:

“Each radiator is to be struck with small metal hammers or heavy beaters. Percussionists should be able to locate three distinct sounds on the radiator: a high-pitched tone by striking the radiator on its top where the ribs connect; a low-pitched, ringing tone by striking the sides of the ribs; and a dull, dead tone by striking the legs or the valve at the bottom.”

Other works on the program are drawn from popular favorites in the symphonic canon. These include Maurice Ravel’s celebrated orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” and Antonin Dvorak’s suite of “Slavonic Dances.”

The concert takes place at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Gorham Middle School auditorium, on Weeks Road. Call the music box office at 780-5555.

Sidebar Elements

Brooklyn Rider is a string quartet with some distinctly different and unconventional approaches to classical music.