LiveConnections Presents kicked off its new season in rousing fashion with an evening of music from the Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble and classical guitarist Jason Vieaux – introduced, in keeping with the educational mission of LiveConnections Presents, by an ensemble of high school students from Play On, Philly! performing Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood” and Bob Lipton’s “Las Palmas.”
The body of the evening could more accurately have had its billing reversed and been called “Jason Vieaux + Fifth House Ensemble.” The performance was bookended by new compositions by Dan Visconti for Vieaux, the solo “Devil’s Strum” and “Living Language.” The selections in between ranged, roughly chronologically, from the oldest surviving complete musical composition, “Epitaph of Selkilos” (in a gorgeous, hypnotic composition by Fifth House horn player Parker Nelson) to a medley of Pat Metheny songs. With the exception of “Epitaph of Selkilos,” these pieces feature Vieaux in combination with one to three Fifth House members.
“Devil’s Strum” was a clever opening for the evening. Visconti takes his inspiration from Delta folktales of musicians selling their souls to the Devil, the contract being completed when Old Scratch tunes the guitar. Vieaux literally tunes his guitar during the playing of this piece: it begins with jangly strumming over the length of the instrument – including above the nut and below the saddle – interrupted by stray harmonics and fragments of blues licks that grow in complexity as the piece progresses (although none seem longer than three or four bars) and ends with the guitar perfectly tuned.
The spell set, the body of the evening progressed. Visconti describes “Living Language” as “something of a tour through world music history,” so the pieces leading up to it are also a tour of sections of European music: the program notes succinctly tie the eclectic but lovely collection together. Ancient music leads to a Renaissance “Pavana y Fantasia”; Robert Beaser’s arrangement of Appalachian music leads to a Schubert quartet that is actually, for the most part, the work of the little-known Wenzel Matiegka; and then to Bartók’s “Romanian Dances.” Duke Ellington then segues into Pat Metheny. In between, recorded sound sometimes adds atmosphere: birdsong before “Barbara Allen,” cocktail party chatter before the Schubert, barnyard sounds before the Bartók. Each piece has its own charms and beauty. Vieaux’s playing is virtuosic throughout, although the “Pavana y Fantasia,” Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and Metheny’s “Always and Forever/Antonia” are highpoints. For Fifth House, Herine Coetzee Koschak on cello, Melissa Snoza on flute, Charlene Kluegel on violin, and Katherine Peterson on piano each get a chance to shine; Parker Nelson’s arrangements shine (he also arranged “Pavana y Fantasia” and the chamber version of “In a Sentimental Mood”).
“Living Language” capped off the evening. It spends a long time winding itself up: initially focused on guitar, which is joined by tuned water glasses. Eventually the entire ensemble joins in, for the first time in the evening, and the sonic language becomes more complex, the rhythm more insistent, hurtling to an abrupt ending that points the audience toward the future evolution of this living language.
As always seems to be the case with this series, it was an adventurous and exciting evening of new chamber music.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Fifth House Ensemble + Jason Vieaux performed December 13, 2017 at World Cafe Live – 3025 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For future Live Connections Presents performances, visit their concert schedule.