Nicole Mitchell Dazzles at UCSD

Robert Bush, May 17, 2012

The groundbreaking and innovative flutist Nicole Mitchell offered up an evening of stellar music to a small, but enthusiastic audience at the acoustically superb Conrad Prebys Hall last night at UCSD.

The program was divided into two parts--the first being a series of duets with pianist Anthony Davis, and the second devoted to two orchestral compositions by Mitchell, performed by an ensemble of UCSD musicians.

Davis began his own, "Of Blues & Dreams," with rhapsodic flourishes — he made the Steinway grand sing like an angel — and, when Mitchell joined him, her velvety-toned melodic gestures soared, swooped, growled and cooed. Davis composes like an improviser and improvises like a composer. His signature piece had plenty of room to branch off into different moods and textures--giving Mitchell wide multiples from which to expand. Dynamics were explored in the fullest sense — and when it got quiet — Mitchell responded with breathy overtones and tiny whistle-stops. She even sang into the flute--shooting skeins of moaning, yelping multiphonics.

Whether he was staking out new territory for Mitchell to improvise upon or taking the lead for himself--Davis was an astonishing force throughout. He can conjure storm clouds of reverberant harmony--create layers of lyric melody or pound with hair raising clusters--all at the speed of neurons firing.

On Mitchell's "Emerald Hills," the angular, bold theme was supported by a series of knotty arpeggios sent into motion by Davis--who's powerhouse solo featured both hands crossing over each other--creating waves of thundering discord.

Dynamics and density were constantly redefined, and upon an open stretch in both, Mitchell's flute traversed the entire range of human emotions through her use of extended techniques and tonal manipulation.

Mitchell asked the audience what piece they should finish with, after tossing out several possibilities--and Davis' "Shimmer," was the winner. Originally an aria from his opera, Amistad, about the slave-ship rebellion in the 1700's, "Shimmer," began with luxuriant harmonies and a haunting flute passage. It reminded me of John Coltrane's often overlooked ballad, "After The Rain," with equal parts delicacy and gravitas.

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After a short intermission, Mitchell the composer returned with a large ensemble of extremely talented graduate-level musicians to explore two extended works. She played flute and piccolo only briefly, concentrating on conducting for the most part.

"Triple Sunset in GJ667Cc," began with eerie string harmony and clarinet/flute melodic layering. Counter-melodies sprang forth from horn, trumpet and baritone saxophone in dark bursts, and it was all over in a flash.

"Arc of O," was much more expansive--sprawling, even. Opening with a violent flourish of Wagnerian cacophony from the entire ensemble, things soon transformed into long, drawn textures punctuated by the excellent trap-drum mallet work of percussionist Leah Bowden, who was a constant delight. Considerable space was devoted to the insanely creative warbling, scraping electronics of Cooper Baker, and there several solo spots made available to the heroic tenor saxophonist Drew Cecatto, who tore things up in the brawny Chicago tradition of Fred Anderson.

"Arc of O," went through many episodic moods, spanning from Ives-ian dissonance to passages that sounded like Oliver Nelson after a campout with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. There were even moments where a back-beat grounded things-- and despite its more than 30 minute run-time, there wasn't a moment of tedium for me. I can only marvel at the kind of brain it must take to create something with such monumental proportions.

One of the finest musical evenings I have ever experienced.

Photos by Dirk Sutro