Monday, 15 October 2007—Houston Chronicle
Review of Musiqa Chamber Music Concert
By Charles Ward

Musiqa's Performance Has a Unique Ring


Need a distinctive ringtone to show you have class? Or because, like me, yours is so common you've more than once mistaken a phone ringing in a TV commercial for your own?

Musiqa has an unusual answer: ringtones by the Houston composers who make up the contemporary music ensemble's artistic team. The four creations — "Alluring,'' "Lingering,'' "Pandering,'' "Skittering'' — were premiered Saturday at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall as part of ``Stayed Tuned,'' the group's first concert this season. Essentially miniature chamber music pieces, they are available as free downloads at

"Stayed Tuned'' was different from many Musiqa events in that it had no large pieces by the artistic directors (Anthony Brandt, Pierre Jalbert and Karim Al-Zand of Rice University and Rob Smith of the University of Houston). Works by other Americans prevailed.

The truly curious one was "Radio Music'' by the master maverick John Cage. On several cues from Brandt, nine Houston radio personalities, holding FM receivers, went through a specified range of frequencies at their own pleasure and twiddled with the volume dials as they wished. (The 1956 piece originally involved AM radios.)

The "performers" were a rather timid bunch. No one lingered on a country tune or a blast of rock (perhaps fearing such a moment would desecrate a sacred event?). No one used extremes of volume to create some shock. There was mostly a low hum of static, snippets of voice and wisps of melody melded together.

For the late Cage that probably would have been fine. He loved leaving things up to chance. He might only have been disappointed that the players didn't have more fun.

Interspersed among the ringtones were other chamber works: Paul Moravec's "Time Machine,'' Sebastian Currier's "Verge'' and Jennifer Higdon's "Zaka'' (an imaginary term Hidgon defines as "to do the following almost simultaneously and with great speed: zap, sock, race, turn, drop, sprint").

They were played with an engaging unanimity of verve by the evening's ensemble: pianist Rodney Waters, violinist Cristian Marcelaru and clarinetist Michael Webster for the Currier; and, with them, cellist Julia Cleworth, flutist Leone Buyse and percussionist Blake Watkins for the other two.

Each work had a distinctive style and plenty of imaginative combinations of instruments for distinctive sounds. Currier's music was the most aggressive, but all three pieces, written in 2000–2003, showed how prevalent today is the tendency to write "accessible" music. There were few good old musical shocks and certainly no knotty intellectual music to intrigue or bore listeners.

Two notable elements peeked through the music collectively. One was the use of repetition in the manner of Janácek and some minimalist composers — chunks of music formed from repeating ideas a few times. The other was stasis, the succinct way of saying that a frenzy of stuff could seem to be going on for a period of time when, in reality, nothing happened.

Laura Jackson, who recently finished a term as Assistant Conductor and American Conducting Fellow with the Atlanta Symphony, conducted the Moravec and Higdon works. She led with authority but no unnecessary stage antics. And in the Higdon work, she helped galvanize an obviously committed performance into an exuberant display of fresh, distinguished writing.

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle