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Review: Atlanta Chamber Players name regional winner in “Rapido!” composition contest

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And the winner is …

Year two of the Atlanta Chamber Players’ “Rapido! A 14-day Composition Contest” delivered as hoped. Hatched by arts philanthropist Ron Antinori and ACP pianist Paula Peace, “Rapido!” is modeled after 48-hour filmmaking contests. In the spring, composers signed up for the competition. On the appointed day, they received the musical parameters: a set of miniatures, four to six minutes in total, scored for a quartet of flute (with piccolo and alto flute optional), clarinet (with bass clarinet optional), cello and piano. Then the composers had two weeks to write their music.

For the inaugural “Rapido!,” the competition was limited to 11 Southern states. This year it expanded to 29 states, with the ACP covering the South, Boston Musica Viva for New England and Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble for the Midwest. All told, some 200 composers submitted entries. (Shown above, at a rehearsal: flutist Christina Smith, pianist Paula Peace, cellist Brad Ritchie and clarinetist Ted Gurch. Photos by Nick Arroyo.)

Atlanta composer Charles Knox and Atlanta Symphony flutist and composer Robert Cronin joined Peace as judges for the Southern preliminaries. They whittled the entries down to three quarter-finalists, which were performed Sunday afternoon in the High Museum of Art’s Hill Auditorium. A trio of outside judges — Georgia State University composer Nick Demos, Emory University pianist Will Ransom and North Carolina composer Jon Grier (who won “Rapido!” last year) — sat with the audience and chose a Southern champion on the spot.

The winner was Piotr Szewczyk (at left), whose day job is as a violinist in Florida’s Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, for his “Images From a Journey.” The four movements were remarkably different in their soundworld, although by the end the composer’s sensibility was apparent.

“Through a Prism,” the opening movement, is scurrying and playful on the surface but holds something else, something deeper, perhaps a feeling of nostalgia or regret. “Moonlight Passacaglia,” slow and contemplative, has a lot of air between the notes and an undercurrent of melancholy. The foreboding “Night’s Embrace” makes a strong impact, with nerve-wracking bass clarinet (played by Ted Gurch) and alto flute lines (Christina Smith) and creepy glissandos from the cello (Brad Ritchie). This isn’t clichéd psychodrama music like the stuff heard on HBO, and Szewczyk never resorts to off-the-rack sounds. The final movement, “Gypsy Ballroom,” a little weaker, includes Hungarian imagery, some twirls and screams and moves at a good clip.

Throughout “Images From a Journey,” Szewczyk’s music is very cleanly written, with direct and clear ideas. The instruments never trip over one another or get lost in too much action. Despite hints at deeper emotions, the music never quite goes there. It lasted just six minutes and was wonderfully polished, for the most part, but I felt something lacking, as if the composer had more to give but held back. Nevertheless, it’s a strong offering and a worthy winner.

“Images From a Journey” will join the winning works from Boston (Patrick Greene’s “Abstract Extraction”) and Chicago (John Elmquist’s “Junk Shot”) for the “Rapido!” finals, scheduled for January 16 in Atlanta. The winner of that round will receive the grand prize: a commission to beef up the work, which will be performed in the three cities next season.

To my ears, Szewczyk’s piece was seriously rivaled by Jamie Keesecker’s “One-Minute Recipes — COLLECT ALL SIX!”

A Ph.D student at Duke University, Keesecker’s premise is that a listener’s perception of time is altered by the content of the music: each of his six movements would last 60 seconds, although it might feel longer or shorter, depending on how it was constructed. “Baking Pancakes (Skipping Rocks),” the opening piece, has the lightness and insouciance of Poulenc and the French neo-classicists, charming and jittery. “Pocket-sized Passacaglia,” slow and halting, features a yearning clarinet joined by flute and cello, with the piano asking meaningful questions at the end — and it showed a spark of an original voice. My ears pricked up at this point. The movements called “Help Me With This Thing for a Minute” and “Probably Cirrus” — Keesecker (above) needs help with titles — offered jolts of personality and a darker psychological palette. In “Rapido,” the final section, I got a sense of foreground and background in the music even as the music whipped along.

Although Szewczyk’s music was more polished and “professional,” Keesecker’s seemed on the edge of bigger things. Still, the judges have to vote based on what’s on the page, not on unrealized potential. But I’ll keep an ear out for Keesecker’s music in the future.

The third quarter-finalist, Alan Elkins (left), was also in “Rapido!” last year and also didn’t win any prizes. His “Strange Journey,” in three movements, was very nice work. I was especially drawn to the “Respite” finale, where the alto flute sings a lonesome song with the piano giving structure with spare chords. The music was lost in its own world, and pulled us into it.

The ACP opened the concert with Arthur Foote’s C Major Piano Quartet, Op. 23, a once popular work premiered in 1891. Pianist Peace and cellist Ritchie were joined by violinist Justin Bruns and violist Catherine Lynn.

“Essentially forgotten,” as Peace described Foote, he was one of the first major-scale American-trained composers. It’s a pity that 19th-century American composers were generally so creatively sheepish. Before Charles Ives in the early 20th century, there was no musical parallel to American poets such as Whitman, novelists like Melville or painters like Eakins, helping create an American vernacular for their art. Expertly crafted, Foote’s Piano Quartet is overheated without much content, or perhaps more light than heat. It is slavishly beholden to Brahms, but without his memorable melodies.

But back to “Rapido!” With the competition seemingly well established and expanding nationally, durable success will come when the music it awards, and the composers it discovers, enter general circulation. How will the competition (and the Antinori Foundation that funds it) take it to the next level? Or will this be an energizing experience and remain its own end point?

Boston’s “Rapido!” performance was reviewed by the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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