Two of Vermont’s most innovative music groups presented exciting programs last weekend that showcased their particular flair — and they are both centered in central Vermont.
Marshfield-based Scrag Mountain Music, founded in 2010 by soprano Mary Bonhag and composer and bassist Evan Premo, combines their talents with their friends from around the country to informally introduce new audiences to traditional and contemporary classical music. Waterbury-based TURNmusic, created in 2014 by conductor Anne Decker, invites audiences into the music of today, employing an ensemble of top Vermont instrumentalists (and occasionally singers).
Although aimed at families, Scrag’s program, “Musical Storytelling for All Ages,” presented Feb. 8 at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, one of three performances around the area (Burington and Waitsfield; Randolph was canceled due to weather), illustrated the group’s homey and accessible approach. The concerts are “come as your are, pay what you can” and very informal, and have proved a big hit with central Vermont audiences.
Setting this apart from other Scrag concerts was a spectacular world premiere. Premo’s 30-minute “Thumbelina,” with vocalist and woodwinds illustrating a text by Hans Christian Andersen, was a joy of musical storytelling, making it a viable partner with Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”
Bonhag told the story of Thimbelina, a thumb-sized girl, and her adventures and misadventures on her way to finding her place in the world. She spoke the narration and sang the dialog effectively in various voices, while the instruments — Catherine Gregory on flutes, Paul Wonjin Cho on clarinets and Brad Balliett on bassoon — colorfully accompanied and, at times, represented the various characters. The bassoon representing the lark was both unexpected and inspired.
Premo’s “Thumbelina” was effective on two levels. First, it was inviting storytelling, with a story and music that draw in audiences of all ages. Second, the music employed contemporary compositional techniques that make the music fresh and iressistible.
TURNmusic found a kindred spirit with Daniel Bernard Roumain. For DBR, as he is popularly known, is a charismatic new-age composer and violinist who harnesses his music in the service of social and political activism, and he has begun to make a splash nationally.
Roumain’s charisma was on full display Feb. 7 when TURNmusic performed at the ZenBarn, the area’s inspired community nightclub. The expertly performed program conducted by Decker, which was repeated Feb. 8 at Burlington’s FlynnSpace, featured music entirely by living African-American composers, including Valerie Coleman and Trevor Weston, as well as Roumain.
The program centered on Roumain’s spectacular “Voodoo” Violin Concerto No. 1, reflecting the composer’s Haitian heritage. Opening with an extravagant solo cadenza, the amplified violinist Roumain took off on the driving journey of the first movement, supported by an ensemble of amplified instruments punctuated by a drum kit in this very dramatic showpiece.
The slow movement, an elegy with the solo violin accompanied by marimba, was tender and affecting. The finale had a wild hoe-down flavor, with the solo violin strummed and picked rather than bowed. Before the movement ended, the composer had insterted a unique cadenza: Audience members were invited to stand up and make a statement about something that concerned or touched them, and half a dozen or so did.
Then it was on to the rollicking and jazzy end. Roumain is a fine violinist with plenty of virtuosity, but more importantly he has created a vivacious and, its “cadenza” notwithstanding, touching work full of various cultural flavors and influences, including jazz and Haitian. And it was a huge success with the audience. Decker understands this music well, and led a particularly fine group of Vermont instrumentalists.
Still, perhaps the most beautiful work was Valerie Coleman’s “Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes.” (Freedmen were former slaves who became part of Native American tribes.) This intimate and affecting music combined Native American and African American threads including jazz in a finely colored and deeply moving tapestry
The excellent performance by Hilary Goldblass on alto flute, clarinetist Dan Liptak, violinist Mary Rowell, cellist John Dunlop and Mary Jane Austin on electronic keyboard was amplified, though it was written for acoustic performance. (It may have been necessary at the ZenBarn.)
The other excellent musicians performing Saturday were Chris Rivers on trumpet, Jesse Metzler on trombone, Jeremy hill on bass, Matt LaRocca on guitar. Pretty much all were involved on the other two works on the program. Weston’s “Dig It” and Roumain’s “Fast Black Dance Machine” are essentially contemporary big-band music, with their jazzy dance-inducing flavor.
Decker’s TURNmusic continues to bring contemporary music that is, for the most part, easily accessible to a wide audience. Yet there is a depth that both challenges and rewards.
At the Scrag Mountain concert, Balliett the bassoonist was also represented as a composer by the world premiere of another fable told with music, “The Three Brothers,” by the Brothers Grimm. He narrated — he didn’t sing — the short jazzy and charming work, where he was accompanied by flute, bass clarinet and double bass. Saturday’s program opened with Premo’s charming folk music-style arrangement of the traditional fairy tale “The Fox.”
Not so much for the kids was Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute. Gregory regaled the audience with the tale of Pan and Syrinx and, more importantly, retold the story expressively through her flute. The concert also featured Charles Koechelin’s Trio for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon, Op. 92, well played but not very interesting.
These concerts make it clear that classiscal music is not only not dying, it’s thriving in Vermont. And Scrag Mountain Music and TURNmusic are taking it joyfully into the future.