Could It Be Magic?

by Mark Greenberg
June 2007

Arc Duo
Bradley Colten, guitar
Heather Holden, flute

“Everyday magic” is pretty much an oxymoron. Thus the attraction of the Harry Potter books. If that were not all, the story of a welfare mother who became richer than the Queen of England based on ideas hatched during a train ride is pretty magical itself, not to mention highly improbable. But then, it is life and need not make sense.

That is to say, in the contest between art and invention, one does not become rich by writing potted prose but rather by telling potty stories.

Anyway, enough of Harry and the Exploding Chamber Pot.

Let us get back to the business at hand – namely concerts – specifically, guitar recitals. As such, let me say that concerts and recitals that can properly be called “magical” do not occur that often. One can go for many months, perhaps even years, from one to the next.

I’ve mentioned a few: Fred Hand’s recital for the NYCCGS and Barbosa-Lima’s half-recital at the New York Guitar Seminar. During the 1970’s, Bream gave almost yearly enchanted events around the Holidays at Alice Tully Hall. But reputation and greatness are no guarantee. Great artists can (and do) foist off a fair share of tedium upon an unsuspecting public between their finest moments.

And what are the characteristics of these so-called “magic” musical moments? Just that. Total suspension of time and judgment. One no longer looks at one’s watch, nor composes apposite words for evaluation of what one has heard. One merely sits enraptured, in a near-gustatory experience of musical pleasure. One could listen and listen forever. One hopes it will never end.

Hey. I heard a concert like that last night.

To the very small list I have itemized above, I can add the Arc Duo – one of the ensembles-in-residence at the Diller-Quaile School of Music.

I’ve heard Bradley Colten and Heather Holden perform there for maybe the last two or three years running. Each time, they have raised the level of their playing – very high to begin with – to a remarkable extent. Last year’s recital was exceedingly fine, but this one was – well, like I said …

The program was built around four fairly contemporary and engaging pieces. First were excerpts from Piazzolla’s History of the Tango. Brad and Heather have performed this piece at nearly every recital of theirs that I’ve heard, and why not? This is gorgeous music. Yet it is always amazing how much room is left for yet more intensity of expression. This was their finest performance yet, and among the best I’ve heard performed by younger players, who did not know Piazzolla personally.

Snow Dreams by Joan Tower is not my idea of easy listening for all eternity. Tower’s music seems to me a bit too crafted. But, that said, here was stunning ensemble playing, magnificently calibrated and coordinated to get Tower’s ideas across with the speed and snap of an overhead smash. You’d have to be made of stone not to have been carried away by the energy of Heather and Brad’s performance. Oh, heck. In fact, they proved Snow Dreams to be quite a fine and enjoyable piece of work.

Still, one might make a case for Snow Dreams as the aural equivalent of potted prose – potted music, if you will. What is wrong with this sort of music was made abundantly clear by the evening’s showpiece — Shining River — a new work for flute and guitar commissioned by the school from the young composer Shafer Mahoney (b.1968).

We who labored long and hard in our youths taking the SAT might put it this way:

1. Story is to Writing as Melody is to:
a) Cell Phones
b) Celine Dion
c) Music
d) All of the above.


I’ll take c). Two points for unoriginality.

And indeed here was melody — yards and yards of it — pouring forth in a lyrical torrent that could be traced to the Grand Canyon and John Muir’s meditation upon a drop of water descending down its wall. This aqueous conceit is not unlike Smetana’s in The Moldau, except here the motion is vertical rather than horizontal. Shining River is a beautiful new addition to flute and guitar repertory, some seven or eight minutes long, but so rhapsodic as to seem a single instant of unfolding. Brad and Heather performed the piece to seamless perfection, leaving both audience and composer (who sat next to me) stupefied (with delight), as J.K. Rowling might say.

The second half of the program offered interesting works by Daniel Pinkham and the great William Bolcom.

Nocturnes, by Pinkham, consisted of five short sketches, some thorny as Tower’s, others lyrical like Mahoney. All had their reserved Bostonian charms. Pinkham, recently deceased, was an academic composer who made the rounds of the college circuit — he did a spell at Skidmore just around the time my son — and wrote some quite lovely music in spite of all that. Brad Colten knew Pinkham slightly during his time at the New England Conservatory, Pinkham’s home base, and the duo offered up an affectionate and sensitive account of the pieces that served the music admirably.

Tres Piezas Lindas by Bolcom (one of America’s Living Treasures as both composer and performer) consisted of sketches of Spain, as perhaps Rodrigo would have written them with a bad hangover. Once again, Brad and Heather magically merged into this odd musical landscape and concluded their wonderful concert with Spirit(s) – very possibly Rioja.

Even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named would have had a hell of a time.