By John Schilling
Brooklyn College musicians gathered on Wednesday, Feb. 23 for the Winter Composers Concert, a showcase featuring new works by Conservatory of Music students past and present. This particular concert was of special significance as it was dedicated to Tania León, a renowned Cuban-born composer who won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition, “Stride.”
León began teaching music composition at Brooklyn College in 1985 and was named the “Tow Distinguished Professor” in 2000. León, who is now 78 years old, serves as the artistic director of the Composers Now Festival, which the Winter Composers Concert at Brooklyn College was a part of in partnership with the Fund for the City of New York.
The concert began with a performance of “Desperation” composed by second-semester student Georgios Gkikas and performed by fellow student Mary Beth Perez Castaño on the violoncello (cello).
“It’s a piece, as the name suggests, about desperation and the sound of hopelessness,” said Gkikas. “I believe there is a common line that connects music with emotions, and that is the human experience,” he added in the concert’s program.
With swift movements, Perez Castaño’s left hand danced up and down the cello’s neck as her fingers moved above the bridge with precision. The four-minute piece, in its entirety, set a somber tone in the recital hall with shifting dynamics, different speeds, and some repetition in an effort to establish the piece’s theme of hopelessness.
With each different sound, the exploration and emotion of the piece was felt throughout before coming to a satisfying finish that was met with thunderous applause. Perez Castaño’s performance then set the stage for Gidong Kim, a pianist and the composer of “Keeping On,” which Kim only wrote last year and came from a rather unique inspiration.
“The idea of the title ‘Keeping On’ is from [the] video game ‘Death Stranding,’” said Kim. “Basically, you are a UPS man and deliver things to other cities in a very grim world, dystopia…and when you go to another city, the message comes out: ‘Keep on keeping on.’”
With that in mind, Kim developed the title for his piece, which he describes as a depiction of “the journey of the mind to continue…when you want to give up.”
Sitting at the piano, Kim wasted no time and began “Keeping On” with a strong dynamic sound in the melody, creating an echo-like sound in the process. As the piece progressed, Kim often shifted between his hands, leaving one hanging to the side while the other hand’s fingers navigated the keys alone.
On that note, the six-and-a-half-minute piece featured “a pattern of repeating triplets,” which Kim describes in the concert’s program as representative of “a continuous effort that fills a series of processes, as if the journey of a long marathon was eventually made up of steps with the left foot and the right foot.”
It is here where Kim’s talent shined as his fingers galloped across the piano and created an uplifting rhythm while also expressing uncertainty and tension through the shifting sounds.
The concert continued with Christopher Lutsker performing “Waves (Set Sail)” by Francesco Pillitteri on the piano. Implied by the title, Pillitteri’s inspiration for the piece came from nature, specifically the beach and nostalgic vacations he went on.
“I was in between two vacations…just remembering laying back on the beach listening to the waves and looking forward to climbing a mountain, and I was just really in touch with nature when I wrote this,” said Pillitteri. “I wrote it for my advanced keyboard class last year, and it was meant for me to play, but I’m not really that good of a pianist so…I left it rather open for the performer to sort of do as they please, especially in terms of the rhythms and the melodies.”
Due to this approach, the piece is played differently every single time with each new performer.
While Pillitteri stood closely behind, Lutsker sat at the piano and began the five-and-a-half-minute piece with a soft, slow melody that quickly morphed into a loud, fast melody, building tension and showing off Pillitteri’s improvisation. The piece then returned to its softer origin, but Lutsker’s fingers never let up, and the music eventually returned to its faster, interpretive melody and then back again to the softer portion, establishing a theme of freedom and continuity yet uniformity.
Shortly after, the concert came to a close with David Hernandez’s “I Heard it From the Mist.” Unlike the three preceding performances, Hernandez played a recording of his piece using his computer and nearby speakers, giving the audience an opportunity to close their eyes and really listen to the piece.
The recording of “I Heard it From the Mist” featured Samuel Braiman and Isabel Bruschi on violin, Lexi Lester-Williams on viola, and Mary Beth Perez Castaño on the cello, making up a string orchestra. This version, according to Hernandez, is set to become part of a larger work by a string quartet.
“I think when writing it, I kept in mind of this David Lynch interview I heard about how he gets ideas for films where he kind of talked about how…you have to catch ideas,” said Hernandez. “You kind of just have your mind open for these ideas to come by, and I think when writing this piece, I always had that in my head…a lot of the themes sound like they’re coming from another place that my mind is open to.”
For “I Heard it From the Mist,” specifically, Hernandez focused on the image of “being led through a foggy marshland with no concept of time or location.” With the absence of performers, this uncertainty translated throughout the piece early on as the audience had the freedom to envision the scene.
The composition, just short of eight minutes, was reminiscent of a film intro, along with aspects of horror and endless wandering. This dramatic build-up, supported by shifting dynamics, created tension throughout the piece with moments of ease before it ended abruptly and without the satisfaction of being found.
At the concert’s end, Program Coordinator Shane Chapman once again acknowledged León’s contributions to Brooklyn College, as well as the composition students who benefitted from her legacy, including those featured in the concert.