Neely Bruce Schools us in Modern Music

In Charleston, Neely Bruce is best known as the composer/conductor behind this year's revival of Flora, An Opera. Elsewhere he's known for his own original works, his piano playing and his knowledge of American music. He's a living library of vernacular, hymnal, early, and contemporary tunes. Music in Time provided the perfect vehicle to show these aspects of Bruce's career at the Simons Center Recital Hall yesterday. There were some thoroughly modern compositions, but the concert was at its most enlightening as an echo of past music styles like ragtime and slave songs.

Series director John Kennedy introduced Bruce, promising that the day's selection would show the breadth of his work and the spirit of his personality, synthesizing his omnivorous love of music. Bruce proved this by spanning a century of musical styles in just over an hour. One of Bruce's true loves is rag, with its infectious syncopated rhythm. You could tell by the way he tore into a 1991 solo piano piece, "Louis Chauvin Surveys the Current State of Affairs." Chauvin was considered the best pianist-writer of his time. He was a black ragtime pianist who counted Scott Joplin among his contemporaries. Juxtaposing low, dark notes with high, bubbling ones, he suggested water running and time passing.

This was followed by some "Furniture Music" a la Erik Satie, in the form of 50 rag licks. Before playing, he shuffled a deck of 50 pieces of paper, each one containing a lick. The papers were placed on the piano and he played through each one without stopping, showing the variety of different ideas that rag music inspired. Like a DJ mixing from tune to the next, Bruce maintained his rhythm and kept his page turner very busy. Next, something completely different.

Bruce is a Professor of Music and American Studies at the Wesleyan University, which has a legacy of Japanese study. There were Oriental overtones in "Music for Dancing II" from 1980, played by flautist Leah Arsenault. In going for Japanese simplicity and elegance, the composer came up with an extremely repetitive tune. But some high, whistling, faint notes, like tears lost in the wind, kept the audience awake. Superb pianist Lydia Brown joined Bruce for the 2001 piano duet "The Year of Jubilio." Another comment on old music, this gave the two players the opportunity to play against each other, striking different chords with the same rhythm. 2005's "Sabbath Has No End" was a powerful experiment inspired by a slave song with only seven notes in it.

The best was saved for last — "Three Sonnets of Eileen Albrizio" (2008-10), inspired by poems and subverting expectations. Despite the feminine perspective of Albrizio's first source poem, "Iris," guest tenor Zachary Stains gave a muscular performance with lots of deep velvety vibrato. Stains was backed by piano, strings, woodwind, and percussion courtesy of members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra. They were particularly effective when playing "The Fawn," capturing the nuances of its fear and flight, beefing up the strings for the running of a deer herd. Stains is one of Flora's unsung heroes thanks to his powerful voice; he made great use of it here.

For some, this concert made the whole festival worthwhile. Personally, I came away with a renewed understanding of early 20th Century music, proving that Bruce is as good a teacher as he is a musician.

Sue Birch