Review of Constantinides’ ‘The Oracle at Delphi’ by New York Concert Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents “The Oracle at Delphi”: The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Review




NOVEMBER 22, 2014If my Greek philosophy serves me right, the inscription over the entrance to the oracle at Delphi proclaimed its most important maxim before the seeker even entered to ask his real question. That saying, “Know thyself,” aptly describes Greek-American composer Dinos Constantinides. He knows his heritage, style, and compositional craft very well. In this all-Constantinides program, he was privileged to have four extremely capable, committed, and evidently enthusiastically involved artists to bring his works to life. They are all faculty members of Louisiana State University, where he is Boyd Professor, the highest academic rank.

Constantinides’ work is conservative, approachable, and generally tonal. He exemplifies Hindemith’s saying “There are only twelve tones, we must treat them with care.” It is gratifying to find a composer in academia who is not writing serially, but is mining the simple expressive power of the twelve half-tones of our traditional chromatic scale. His hallmarks are: motific unity and good, audible counterpoint, pleasing instrumental sonorities, and a mix of lyricism and jauntiness, even humor. The novice listener can follow the discourse immediately without disorientation.

The first work, Mountains of Epirus, dedicated to the memory of his mother and father, established his general processes, with clear counterpoint in the “At the Village” movement, and a lively motoric seven meter in the “Country Fair” second movement. It was beautifully played, by violinist Lin He and pianist Michael Gurt. Glimpses of modal melodies peek through, though they are probably not quotes, but original outgrowths of his immersion in native folklore. Next came the Midnight Fantasy II for clarinet and piano, whose genesis owes to a small cluster of notes from a Nat King Cole song. The brilliant clarinetist Robert DeLutis, again partnered by Mr. Gurt, conveyed the “musiques nocturnes” feeling well.

Lazy Jack and His Fiddle for unaccompanied violin has the air of a children’s piece, indeed it is based on a children’s tale, but few children would ever be able to negotiate its virtuosic demands. Here, the motific unity lends strength to what might be a lighter, “occasional” sort of piece. The slothful fiddler amuses us by mistaking A-Flat for the last note of a piece in G, then the other way around, before conclusively resolving in G. Transformations for clarinet and piano showed an uncanny unanimity of ensemble between the two players; they were no longer separate, but “one instrument” in thought, execution, and feeling. The endings of movements were transfixing.

Listenings and Silences was the concluding work on the first half, sung unaccompanied by the expressive mezzo-soprano Margaret O’Connell. It is based on poems or poem fragments by the former Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Pinkie Gordon Lane (1923-2008). Ms. Lane’s quietly expressive take on race issues (which earned her no favors with the more militant black community) was evident in the first section “A Quiet Poem,” which was sung with just enough gesture by Ms. O’Connell. “Poem Extract” and “Listenings” were also delivered well, though an unaccompanied voice is so very exposed, a few of the words were lost as she ascended into the upper reaches of her otherwise rich voice.

After intermission, Ms. O’Connell returned for another solo work Delphic Hymn, whose origin was incidental music for a production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. This was a wordless vocalise, and since no one really knows what Greek music from the second century BC actually sounded like, the claim that it incorporates fragments from the actual antique Delphic Hymn can’t be substantiated. But the work does have atmosphere, although its dimensions were too slight to contain the full horror and anguish of the Oedipus drama.

Music for Violin and Clarinet contained rapid interchanges between the instruments, as they negotiated Prologue, Dialogue, Monologues I and II, and an Epilogue. There was humor here, as the clarinet got the “last word” in during the Dialogue. Fantasia for Solo Clarinet showcased the tonal color range of the marvelous Mr. DiLutis. Idyll, for violin and piano, followed. In my understanding, an idyll is an extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque episode or scene, often an idealized, unsustainable one. This work seemed rather unhappy, meandering through a number of minor keys before finding some sense of resolution.

The final work, The Oracle at Delphi, is scored for the unusual trio combination of violin, clarinet, and piano. The work is based on a modal Greek “folk-like” tune which is developed among the players, reflecting Constantinides’ heritage. His music does not shout at you. It is sensitive, and this work tended to “withdraw” at the end, making a somewhat somber ending for a very honorable afternoon.

by Frank Daykin for New York Concert Review; New York, NY

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