By Ted AYALA
There is something about composers Jason Barabba, Jenni Brandon, John Frantzen, Daniel Gall, Eric Guinivan and Vera Ivanova that make drawing parallels with another group of six composers who forged a uniquely modern idiom difficult to resist: Les six. True, they have no waggish literary figure at their helm ready to serve as spokesperson and carnival barker, with biting quips and sound bites ever at the ready to tweak the nose of the press. But the comparisons, especially when considering the quality of the best of their music, are apt.
Operating under the collective name of Synchromy, these six composers have banded together in a shared goal of composing music that engages the listener’s ear. Similarities, however, end there. In their quest to craft a musical language that is at once contemporary and rooted in the best of tradition, they each follow roads to that goal distinct from the other. What emerges then are statements of compelling power, originality, and often of beguiling beauty.
In their first concert of their third season on Saturday night at Occidental College’s Bird Studio, Synchromy laid out the multi-faceted invention of its composers. Now in celebrating its third season— and their first as a non-profit —they set a mood of maturity for Synchromy. Alongside their music were pieces by older established voices of today, Vytaustas Barkauskas and Pierre Jalbert. In this context one heard the composers of Synchromy not only as a collection of some of Southern California’s best composers, but also as some of the best to be heard anywhere today.
Prominent in much of the music of the Synchromy composers is humor. In the case of Barabba’s “Rhetorical Devices,” the humor is of a decidedly whimsical kind. Its nine aphoristic movements for violin and piano find the composer composing a kind of conversation piece between violin and piano. Or perhaps the better word is “argument.”
There are moments when violin and piano seem on the verge of coming to blows, so aggressive do they strive to be heard over the other. Interspersed in the suite are two movements —“Tweets”— when the composer limits the music to 140 characters (rests included).
In Vera Ivanova’s “Fantasy-Toccata for Violin and Piano” the humor takes on a harder, sardonic edge recalling the composer’s roots in the work of Shostakovich and Schnittke. Composed for the great Ukrainian violinist Oleh Krysa and his wife Tatiana Tchekina, the composer pushes to the limits the technique of her performers. Burning with restless energy and dark Slavic passion, it seizes the listener from start to finish.
Similar in spirit to the Barabba work— but expressed in language completely its own— was the “Dualisms for Violin and Cello” by Frantzen. In three movements, violin and cello wind around each other in wrenching canonical figures. The central movement— a ghostly, pizzicato scherzo— was especially impressive – its music tough, challenging in a way that the work of Wallingford Riegger and the early Morton Feldman could be. But it was also deeply satisfying with the composer’s sureness of touch evident throughout.
Standing somewhat apart was Eric Guinivan’s “Silver Horizon,” a piano piece that instructs the player to depress the sustaining pedal during the entire work. It was a gorgeous timbral exploration of the piano’s hazy overtones. They splashed against each other creating a captivating, aromatic haze.
Musicians Iryna Krechkovsky (violin), Joo Lee (cello) and Kevin Kwan Loucks (piano) gave vital performances commensurate with the music’s worth. Especially noteworthy was the work of Krechkovsky. The mastery of her instrument was total, her expressiveness all-consuming. The force of her playing trained onto the audience’s ears and hearts with all the force of a laser, virtually pinning one to their seat. This was powerful, explosive and deeply persuasive playing which the modest size of the Bird Studio could scarcely contain.
There is, perhaps, nowhere else in the country with as a vital a new music scene as Los Angeles enjoys today. And nowhere in Los Angeles is there a more exciting collective of new music than Synchromy.