Composers fete their teacher John Eaton at Symphony Space
Sun Mar 31, 2019 at 3:36 pm By David Wright
Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson joined other students of the late John Eaton to pay tribute to their beloved teacher on Saturday at Symphony Space. Photo: Jeremy Tressler
Whether or not John Eaton’s name is a household word depends on whose house you’re in. If it’s the opera house, you might well have encountered this composer’s work in San Francisco, Santa Fe, or Brooklyn, or in small companies performing his handy “pocket operas.” His ventures in electronic and microtonal music earned him high-profile commissions and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
But in the homes and studios of dozens of composers across the country, Eaton, who died in 2015 at 80, is remembered as a teacher and convivial friend who brought out the best in every one of his students at Indiana University and the University of Chicago.
That was the Eaton of “Celebrating John Eaton’s Legacy,” Saturday night’s concert of music mostly not by John Eaton in the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space, the site of many performances by Eaton’s Pocket Opera Players in recent years. No fewer than nine of his former students offered their compositions, performed by nineteen musicians over three consistently intriguing hours.
Maurice Ravel once complained that all his composition students (except Ralph Vaughan Williams) “write my music” — that is, try to be mini-Ravels. In welcoming the audience Saturday night, the composer’s widow, soprano Nelda Nelson-Eaton, said the evening’s program would show how her husband encouraged each student to find his or her distinctive voice.
As if to make her point, the first item on the program left the academic hothouse behind for the hard fields of Appalachian Kentucky. In Songs for My Mother, composer and pianist Carol Ann Weaver put a simple, lightly syncopated accompaniment under the vibrato-less voice of soprano Mary-Catherine Pazzano in plain, affecting settings of her mother’s words about rural life in the 1940s, children, and approaching death.
Then it was back to the cutting edge as oboist Patricia Morehead performed her Sounds and Sighs for John for oboe d’amore/oboe and electronics, beginning thoughtfully amid whooshing surf sounds, then branching out into live multiphonics and electronic drum track, marimba, and didgeridoo.
Richard Cameron-Wolfe’s Kyrie (Mantra) IV, arranged for flute and guitar by Sergii Gorkusha, showcased the microtonal and multiphonic skills, and exceptional breath control, of flutist Roberta Michel in variations on a Gregorian chant. Guitarist Daniel Lippel contributed sensitive phrasing in a variety of timbres, damped chords, koto-like twangs, and an occasional hissing vocalization.
A real koto was next, resonantly played by Yumi Kurosawa in a halting dialogue with Christopher Otto’s scrapey violin harmonics and sul ponticello, as the two players meditated on an 18th Century haiku in Winnie Cheung’s Taking the Scarlet.
Randolph Peters spoke to introduce his piece Juggernaut, then operated the electronics while a quartet consisting of violinists Kobi Malkin and Siwoo Kim, violist Andrew Gonzalez, and cellist Jared Blajian vividly evoked an East Indian festival where a ceremonial cart bearing the likeness of the god Vishnu is sent careering down a hill, risking the lives of those below. The movement titles — Momentum, Frenzy, and Requiem (the last a hymn in simple church harmony) — told the story.
Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson spoke feelingly of his friendship with Eaton, which lasted from 1970, when Nelson arrived at IU as an 18-year-old African-American from Oklahoma City and became Eaton’s first composition student, to the night Eaton died, while Nelson was waiting to meet him at a concert of his works. On Saturday Nelson went to the piano, pressed a pedal and, playing trumpet directly into the resonant opened strings, improvised a passionate solo based on Eaton’s song “What if this present were the world’s last night?”Nelson also played a few notes and chords on the keyboard and gently drummed inside the piano with a mallet.
Being an improvisation, Nelson’s piece was of course a world premiere, and so was the composed piece that came next, Marc Satterwhite’s For John Eaton for bass flute and bass clarinet. In a program note, Satterwhite recalled the beauty of these two instruments in Eaton’s opera scores. His own score for them was atmospheric, lyrical, and jittery by turns, in a colorful performance by flutist Michel and clarinetist Vasko Dukovski.
Three mezzo-sopranos of operatic cut closed out the program. A vibrant Jessica Bowers joined guitarist Oren Fader (aka the Bowers-Fader Duo) in Los Cuatro Acuerdos by the late Judith Sainte Croix. Texts by Don Miguel Ruiz, a poet descended from a line of Toltec shamans, rang out in vigorous vocal melismas and fiery strumming guitar accents.
Mezzo Deanne Meek’s flexible voice and elegant diction brought out every nuance of W.H. Auden’s dark musings in “Lullaby”from Algebra of Night, as set by composer Eugene O’Brien for voice and string trio. String players Malkin, Gonzalez, and Blajian alternately cushioned her voice and drove the poem’s more passionate moments.
Many and various were the former students’ works, but on Saturday it was the master who had the last word. Eaton’s powerful Sor Juana Songs were dated 2016 in the program — unlikely, since the composer died the previous year — but probably are from 1998, the date given in Eaton’s works list at the American Composers Alliance website.
Whatever the year, the three songs were potent evocations of the spirited 17th Century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for mezzo-soprano and piano in almost recitative-like conversation. With her brilliant top voice and compelling lower register, mezzo Kate Maroney made it seem as though this passionate music had been written just for her. Eaton interwove the parts so the pianist could go full bore without covering the singer, and pianist Irena Portenko fiercely did just that.