The first time I saw Ken Ueno was at the 2004 performance of Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts at Alice Tully Hall; he seemed excited and intense, and also strangely disarming. His music is like that, too. We’ve corresponded a few times and I’m always interested in what he’s doing. (He recently joined the music department at UC Berkeley and has already amassed a number of impressive awards and accomplishments.) These three concertos, he explains in the liner notes, are very intimately conceived not only for their soloists, but for the members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project itself. (Ueno lived in the area while completing his doctoral work at Harvard.)
Given the complexity and depth of Ueno’s music, I’m surprised how well I apprehend the ideas he communicates. A case in point: I stopped reading Ueno’s notes after a remark that the three works on the disc concern mortality and “the multifaceted ways survivorship requires heroism.” Talus, a concerto for viola, begins with a scream; soon afterward, however, Ueno begins a detailed and magnificent exploration of all kinds of sounds and textures, so that in retrospect the scream seems less of a dramatic gesture than another sound that fits perfectly with the rest. (After listening, I was astonished to read much the same thing in Ueno’s own description of the work.)
For On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis, Ueno performs the solo overtone singer part himself. This work includes brass, percussion, and winds along with strings for the orchestra part. And once again the orchestra seems to take up and emphasize aspects of the overtone singing. Here and there I hear a gesture that reminds me a little of early Penderecki, but the treatment of timbre is much more engaging than most of what the Polish composer has even done and reaffirms that Ueno is a composer of his time but speaks with his own voice.
The final work, Kaze-no-Oka, is a memorial for Takemitsu with important solo parts for biwa and shakuhachi. Ueno writes strongly against the grain of standard expectations for the concerto by reserving the second half of the piece for the two soloists alone. And what sounds like a simple, almost banal gesture becomes incredibly moving—a daring decision that perfectly matches the poetry of the work. It is completely in keeping with Ken Ueno, who I believe is going to be an extremely important American composer.
- Robert Haskins
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