World premiere
draws on unusual

Detroit Free Press
June 13, 2009
by Mark Stryker

Contemporary music is a top priority at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, where the annual resident composers have been some of the most distinguished names in the field, including this year's entry, Stephen Hartke.

But the festival has also increasingly been making room for younger composers with rising reputations, and that trend paid big dividends Thursday with the world premiere of “Two Hands” for viola and percussion by Ken Ueno, a 39-year-old Japanese-American.

A riveting exploration of the thin border between sound and silence, the piece takes inspiration from Anne Sexton’s poem “Two Hands,” whose eloquent, Genesis imagery is less confessional than much of her work. There are five movements, each a response to a Sexton fragment. Ueno relies on fiercely concentrated, pointillistic gestures and unusual effects to evoke a state of suspended meditation: gentle scrapes, quick slashes, erotic shivers, cold stares, fleeting melodies that shimmer like apparitions.

This is territory staked out by modernists like György Kurtág, Toru Takemitsu and Morton Feldman, but Ueno's voice is individual and robust. The exotic means — bowed metal, amplified salt vibrating on timpani, tuned cowbells, Thai gongs, sliding pitches, harmonics and curious bowings that create notes that sound cushioned by wind — make you lean forward with anticipation: What's coming next?

Thursday's performers were Detroit-born violist Kim Kashkashian, for whom “Two Hands” was written, and Gwendolyn Burgett Thrasher. Kashkashian was a marvel, producing a remarkable range of color and delivering every unconventional idea with elegant, vocal expression. Thrasher played with sensitivity, and a solo movement — the only spot that articulates a steady groove — was a highlight.

The rest of the evening found festival artists addressing traditional repertoire by Schubert, Chopin and Mendelssohn with varying degrees of success; this was a night to celebrate the new.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO