An evening with Anthony Davis and his group demonstrates at least two things to the serious listener: first, that this is a composer of great and unusual scope, and second, that the instruments in his group are ideally suited to convey his musical message, either in ensemble or solo.
The program by Group/Davis which headlined the opening amphitheater program for this year's Utah Arts Festival was heavy going for many a listener. Indeed, Davis fared much like Philip Glass, who gave a similar program of unusual works a few years ago and found his audience melting away like snow under the summer sun.Actually, the festival may not be the ideal forum for such artists as Glass and Davis, whose music is frankly avant-garde. Davis does not compromise, and an audience seeking light jazzy entertainment will quickly find his music beyond their depth. But Davis does deserve a forum, and the festival must be thanked for bringing him to Utah.
His opening "Wayang Number IV" was the basis for the overture to his opera, "Under the Double Moon," a sort of science fiction, mystical tale. With its minimalist elements and jazzy rhythms, its unusual uses of violin, cello and wind instruments, it introduced his style non-aggressively.
It is exploratory music which uses one chord, or one sequence of notes with many repetitions and variations, but only the slightest changes from chord to chord. Yet no one would call this music hypnotic or mesmerizing - it is too purposeful.
"Some Springs" introduced Davis as narrator of his cousin Thulani Davis's poem, and soprano Cynthia Aaronson sings the words. "Spring" in this case is the season when the Mississippi overflows and drowns out the sound of happy music in the shanties along its banks - but not before some jazzy elements have made their exuberant appearance.
Davis' way with a lyric line is sometimes persuasive, sometimes exciting, and Aaronson has the sweet, strong, high voice to extend his thoughts upward. "Some Springs" showed the sort of melodic, dramatic flair that has carried Davis through several successful operatic ventures.
"The Ghost Factory" is based on a theme from Davis's violin concerto, and gave violinist Mark Feldman a virtuosic workout, as the solo soared in florid freedom above the chordal developments in the other instruments, with ghostly reverberations.
Especially effective were the many duets between the violin and percussion, particularly snare drum and sticks, with intricate inserts from the other instruments. The final effect was lyric and soothing.
Perhaps the most densely constructed work of all was "Still Waters," inspired by the 23rd Psalm. The sonorities of this piece have an interesting feeling of weight and significance. The bassoon is the foundation instrument, even playing a lovely solo. The percussionist was busy with a variety of instruments and must be lightfooted to accomplish it all.
Also outstanding was a rhapsodic cello solo, lyric and passionate in a Hebraic way, and the decorative phrases of the flute called to mind David's pipes. Indeed, each instrument had interesting solo passages, which exploited their capacities fully, sometimes amazingly.
In a way this was stream-of-consciousness music, rolling along and building to big, improvisatory-sounding passages, then taking off rhapsodically. Davis apparently has unlimited melodic and developmental ideas; he never comes to a dead end, but always finds a way out and on, sometimes through jazzy improvisations. By the time this long, intricate piece was over, one felt as if he had traversed not just a quiet pool, but the length of the River Jordan.
The final piece, "Beginning of Light of Time Passing," brought Aaronson to the stage again for a piece in the style of a rather conventional love song or aria - a pleasing melody for soprano, with piano accompaniment and fine flute work.