New music by Swarthmore professors to be performed tonight

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Tonight the Philadelphia-based Network for New Music will present a concert featuring works by Swarthmore music department faculty Tom Whitman and Gerald Levinson, as well as former faculty member Melinda Wagner. The concert is at 8:00 p.m. in Lang Concert Hall.

Levinson’s composition, “At the Still Point of the Turning World, There the Dance Is,” is written for a highly unusual ensemble combining a variety of woodwinds, strings and percussion, including guitar, saxophone and bass clarinet. Levinson chose this self-proclaimed “weird group” to bring a “new sensibility to the traditional chamber music medium,” and counts Balinese gamelan music as one of his major influences. The title comes from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and though the work is outwardly very active, the paradoxical title suggests an inner calm. “It takes you on a long journey,” Levinson says.

Whitman’s work is for a traditional piano quartet- piano, violin, viola and cello- a sharp contrast to Levinson’s enormous variety of timbres. It is a homage to Brahms, whose music Whitman says “I have always loved…for its combination of lyrical beauty, vivid emotional contrasts…and rhythmic and textural inventiveness, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would seek inspiration there.” Though Whitman describes the piece as “old-fashioned,” it is still vividly modern and finds some startlingly new sounds in a familiar combination of instruments.

Melinda Wagner’s piece is a piano trio (piano, violin and cello) that Levinson describes as “poetic and romantic.” Wagner is a native of Swarthmore, attended high school in the area and received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in music for her Flute Concerto. “She’s a terrific composer,” says Whitman. Wagner taught at Swarthmore during the 1980’s.

New music has an undeserved reputation for difficulty, and Levinson thinks that anyone with an open mind can enjoy the concert. “Music is music. You should listen and respond spontaneously. This is not an academic exercise.” The works will be performed by members of the Network for New Music, most of whom are Philadelphia Orchestra members. Both Whitman and Levinson stresses their extraordinary virtuosity and commitment to new music. Though some of the things he wrote are “verging on the unplayable, they found ways of playing it,” Levinson says. “They do it because they relish the challenge,” adds Whitman.

The three pieces will be recorded in sessions in Lang next week, and the CD will be commercially available. Meanwhile, the composers are forging ahead: Levinson is working on a piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s dedication of the Verizon Hall organ, and Whitman is writing a song for Tamara Ryan ‘06’s senior recital and an opera based on a Sherlock Holmes story with a libretto by English professor Natalie Anderson.

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