Sonic exploration

An excellent, refreshing kick-off for New Music Symposium

The Westerlies at Chico State’s New Music Symposium.

The Westerlies at Chico State’s New Music Symposium.

Photo by John Domogma

New Music Symposium, opening night with The Westerlies and Pull-String Duo, Wednesday, Feb. 24, Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall, Chico State.

With Chico’s lively music scene roiling with rock bands of every imaginable subgenre performing in multiple venues nearly every night of the week, it’s difficult to keep up with or financially prioritize where to go and what to see next. So it was kind of a relief to be invited to the comfy, acoustically optimum confines of the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall at Chico State to enjoy a free concert of genuinely new nonrock music.

Musician David Dvorin, Chico State music professor and curator of the New Music Symposium, greeted the audience with a cordial, somewhat self-deprecating welcoming speech at the kick-off for the three-day festival last Wednesday night (Feb. 24). The guitarist then introduced his partner in the “chamber-jazz” Pull-String Duo, violinist Matej Seda, before beginning a set of original compositions that seemed ideally suited to the setting and occasion.

Sitting in chairs on the floor in front of the auditorium’s stage on opposite sides of a dark wooden end table, with Dvorin’s three sparkling acoustic guitars behind them on stands and only a single, antique fringe-shaded lamp for décor, gave the presentation a sense of intimacy and focus. Beginning with Seda’s plucked violin in close interplay with Dvorin’s picked guitar notes, opening number “Sucker Punch” established the duo’s credibility as masters of both technical skill and emotive musicality. The music moved gracefully from jazzy, rapid-fire interaction to delicate unified themes evocative of pastoral or elegiac classical music. I particularly enjoyed “Switchback,” a piece featuring gnarly buzzing guitar notes counterpointed by swirling violin, which Dvorin described as “one of our weirder ones,” and Seda’s “Emil,” a short piece with ebulliently conversational interplay between the instruments.

After a brief intermission, Dvorin gave a friendly and complimentary introduction of the four young men in New York-based brass quartet The Westerlies, who arranged themselves in the same intimate space in front of the stage, with trumpeters Zubin Hensler and Riley Mulherkar on the left and trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on the right. They began their set with a slow surging piece titled “A Nearer Sun,” which showcased the fluid dynamics and tight interplay between the four players. Over the course of the concert, The Westerlies’ music evoked everything from classical music to cartoon soundtracks to New Orleans funeral parades and Dixieland jazz.

The group’s second number, Mulherkar’s composition “Double Situation,” managed in the course of four minutes to do all of the above. At times, it reminded me of the lush brass arrangements of Frank Zappa’s avant-jazz classic, The Grand Wazoo. Another favorite was Hensler’s composition “So So Shy,” which, contrary to its title, blasted off with blaring, intricate contrapuntal phrases from the trombones and trumpets. The other horns eventually unified to provide a backdrop for a solo from Mulherkar that achieved a nearly clarinet-like tone before accelerating and ascending into a section in which the trumpet bells were muted by aluminum foil wraps that imparted a soft, buzzing enhancement to their tone.

Demonstrating the quartet’s affiliation with and expertise in interpreting modern classical music, its rendition of Charles Ives’ “Songs My Mother Taught Me” brought the piece to life by evoking feelings ranging from somber to delightedly childlike, sending the audience’s ears skittering in search of familiar melodies that suggested, but never quoted, everything from nursery songs to George Gershwin and Stephen Foster.

With their friendly, casual but technically precise approach to playing very challenging music, the four childhood friends brought the audience to a well-earned standing ovation. And they “love” Chico, so keep your eyes and ears open for their return.