People familiar with classical music often react strongly to the concept of "new music." Since the early part of our century through its middle, "new music" had often been synonymous with "hard on the ears," "difficult to get into" and "of great academic interest." But Fred Cohen, director of the University of Richmond's resident new-music ensemble, CURRENTS, acknowledges that "while there was a time when pleasing the audience was not considered of particularly high value, those days are long past." This is certainly true of the ensemble's upcoming "Gnarly Music" performance on Sunday, Nov. 5. CURRENTS, a chamber ensemble made up of professional musicians drawn from the Richmond Symphony and UR faculty, is dedicated to bringing "fresh, spirited and inventive programming of new music to audiences in Virginia." Through its free concerts, Cohen hopes to dispel the notion that all new music is "gnarly." The upcoming concert of predominantly dance music should go a long way toward making that goal a reality. John Adams' "Gnarly Buttons," written in 1996 for the London Sinfonietta, is an accessible and fun piece of music in three movements: "The Perilous Shore," "Hoe-Down (Mad Cow)" and "Put your Loving Arms Around Me." It is scored for chamber orchestra and clarinet soloist, with the addition of banjo, mandolin, guitar and two sampling pianos (including the occasional bovine exclamation). "Gnarly Buttons," unlike Adams' operas, "is not as minimally oriented," says David Niethamer, clarinetist with the Richmond Symphony and soloist in this upcoming concert. Rather, Niethamer says, it is "a really fun piece, tonally and rhythmically interesting," and, surprising to a self-avowed non-Adams fan, "not at all ugly." All three movements are strikingly different and yet united in their engaging dancelike qualities. The theme of dance music is continued through two of the other works on the program: Oliver Knussen's "Ophelia Dances" and David Greenblatt's "Hoedown Medley No. 1." "Ophelia Dances," scored for chamber ensemble and celeste, Cohen acknowledges, is not as accessible as the Adams work and may be "a rough ride for some people their first time through." Constructed out of fragments of dance pieces, "Ophelia Dances" is meant to provide a mind's-eye view of the progression from sanity to insanity in the character of the same name from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Greenblatt's "Hoedown Medley No. 1," scored for string trio, maintains the rhythmic excitement, fun and momentum begun in the Adams work. The final piece on the program is the rescheduled premiere of the autobiographical "Crossing Pont Marie" by Richmond composer and poet Richard Becker, which reflects the composer's experience of Paris in the summertime. The piece features Joanne Kong on piano and James Wilson on cello. So why take a chance on the shock of the "new?" Cohen maintains that new music and this concert in particular represents "the living future of music, the heart of which is small ensembles doing intimate and thrilling work."
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