Before she begins, clarinetist Stephanie Key attempts to calm those intimidated by “Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux,” a piece for flute and clarinet written by composer Elliot Carter at the age of 87. “Carter is always joking and dancing along to his music,” she reassures us, “so why shouldn’t we?” It’s hard to fault the audience for remaining seated, though, once Key and guest flautist Allison Garza (of the Houston Symphony) begin to play a piece so rapid and rest-free it requires them to line sheet music across four stands and move as the song progresses, rather than pause to turn the page. It’s a thought-provoking, complex piece of music, no less challenging for the image it now invokes of Carter, still alive at 100 years old, doing the Electric Slide.
Michael Torke’s minimalist Telephone Book, for flute, clarinet, piano, and violin, is more readily accessible. Reportedly inspired by the progression of alphabetized names, the work is divided into three movements, composed of simple, repeating themes played by each individual instrument and fit intricately together. The first, “Yellow Pages,” sounds appropriately industrial, beginning at a high intensity before mellowing in fits and starts into a groove appropriate for the daily grind. The switch to bass clarinet for the second movement requires Key to sit on an actual phonebook, which prompts appreciative giggles throughout the gallery. “Blue Pages,” named for the government listings, proceeds with all the deliberate plodding of bureaucracy, while cellist David Mollenauer and violinist Ertan Torgul sway in time with their bows. The third and final movement, “White Pages,” is probably most affecting. The impossible-seeming number of notes played by each instrument function more or less in tangent, like the unknowable names filling that inches-thick bulk of pages, a swelling mass that builds in intensity and aggression before suddenly dying.
After a brief intermission, the lights go down, and Garcia, Mollenauer, and pianist Carolyn True reemerge, their faces hidden by domino masks, conditions specified by composer George Crumb for his whale-song-inspired Vox Balaenae. The sheet music for Vox must make for some interesting sight reading. In addition to the masks and low, bluish light, the piece requires Garcia to frequently play her flute in such a way that her breath audibly hisses, and her keys pop when they snap shut. Occasionally it sounds as though she’s singing into her flute like it’s an extremely high-end kazoo. The entire piece creates submarine beauty through intentional flubs and defects. Mollenauer strikes his cello with his bow, scratches the strings, and even whistles to mimic mammalian distress signals, while True punctuates the cries with pounded notes so deep they can only signal a shark in the water.