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December 8, 2010

Mobtown Modern salutes avant-garde composer/vocalist Ken Ueno

From the sublime to the -- what's a trendy, early 21st century word for funky? Anyway, after Monday night's exquisite experience with David Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion," presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik, Tuesday night's encounter with composer/vocalist Ken Ueno, presented by Mobtown Modern at Metro Gallery, proved ever so slightly different.

Winner of the Rome Prize and Berlin Prize, Ueno is an intriguing talent, capable of humor as well as depth. And Mobtown Modern's program, a salute to Ueno in his 40th year, provided an illuminating sample of his work.

There was the composer's cheeky side -- "Yellow 632," a piece from 1998 for three humans and six mechanical toys. In this case, the sound of Big Bird exclaiming "This is funny" and doing some weird electronic laugh became the basis of a bit of theater, with the "voices" overlapping in increasingly off-kilter ways and the performers ultimately "liberating" the internal mechanisms from the toy bodies. The presentation was assured, the end result mildly interesting.

Ueno's solo vocalizing -- he commands an almost frightening arsenal of unusual and difficult techniques -- left me cold. "Watt," which suggests a jazz improv on severe steroids, gave sax man Brian Sacawa and percussionist Doug Perkins a taut, often explosive workout.

Ueno's "Sabinium," with video animation by Harvey Goldman, turns soap bubbles into massive, threatening creatures and extracts from their movements a strange sonic symphony.

The finale showed the composer at his most

persuasive. "Talus" was written for violist Wendy Richman, who broke her ankle in a fall in 2006 -- during a rehearsal for a David Lang opera. Ueno essentially dramatizes that accident -- the piece starts with a scream from the soloist -- but he avoids gimmicky. It's quite a deep and involving work of exceptional lyrical power with long-sustained notes and the spaces in between. Richman was the impressive player. She had the tense harmonic language communicating vividly.

For those of you who missed the concert, here's a taste of Ueno's music, an a cappella work titled Shiroi Ishi:


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:41 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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