Pomona Music Department Concert Debuts with Debussy

After an unusually gloomy winter here in Claremont, the first formal concert of the year revived the campus with euphonious music, opening with French composer Debussy’s melodic “Six epigraphes antiques.” Faculty pianists Genevieve Feiwen Lee and Ming Tsu, cellist Maggie Parkins, and percussionist Nicholas Terry were invited by Pomona College’s music department and attracted a large crowd both from the 5Cs and from the surrounding community. 

The music played by faculty, students, and visiting musicians at Pomona represented a wide range of time periods and derived origins from all over the world. The concert brought together an interesting mix of contemporary music: three later pieces of Debussy, a distinctive piece by Cambodian composer Ung, and a world premiere of a new piece by former professor Karl Kohn. The concert continued a trend of increasing stylistic diversity throughout the series. 

“The program for this concert celebrates music from 1915–2015, the lifespan of Bridges Hall,” said professor Lee, who performed in Friday night's show. “The Debussy works were finished in 1915 toward the end of his life, and despite his own illness and the world war, he was able to create these masterpieces of concise language, beautiful instrumental color, and mercurial changes of character,” Lee said.

The concert served as a nod to Little Bridges Hall of Music's recent 100th birthday. 

The three pieces by Debussy—”Six Epigraphes antiques,” “En blanc et noir,” and “Cello Sonate”—were all significantly influenced by the First World War. Tsu, Parkins, and Lee’s accurate interpretation and beautiful articulation of the pieces brought the audience back to early 20th century France—magnificent yet devastated by WWI. “The [piece] was characteristic of Debussy, but you can also kind of hear the war confusion,” Paskalina Bourbon PO ’19 said.

Balancing the program and adding to its intrigue, another notable feature of Friday’s concert was the inclusion of Cambodian influences. With its unusual harmonies, “Spiral” by Ung left the audience mesmerized before intermission. The performance's dreamy, Southeast Asian flavor was brought on by the fusion of Asian and contemporary styles, and the unusual assembly of cello, piano, and various Asian percussion instruments.

“There were many interesting things going on, like the harmonics and crescendo in the cello, the slightly staggered relationship between cello and the percussion, and the plucking and muting inside the piano. The Cambodian piece was very interesting,” Bourbon said. The echoing effects from the instruments threw color out into the audience, leaving room for vast imagination.

“Ung’s music captures otherworldly timbres from the cello, percussion, and piano with the virtuosic cello part featuring high wire harmonics, fluttering tremolos and trills, and breathtaking sonorities. His music unites the composer’s Cambodian history with the Western language of the 20th century,” Lee said.

While Debussy’s work has been commonly played for about a century and Ung’s music first came into the mainstream 30 years ago, “Three Expressions” by Karl Kohn made its world premiere Friday night. Composed in 2015, it was performed for the first time at Bridges Hall of Music. “The form and character of the music suggests a dialogue and a dramatic action that unfolds spontaneously between the cello and the piano. I have attempted to present each instrument in its most idiomatic language, and to bring out some of its most natural and characteristic qualities of sound and figuration,” Kohn said as he introduced the piece.

The concert ended with generous applause from the audience. As people scattered into the quiet night, some commented on the evening's performance, while others stayed silent, lost in the music still lingering in the hall. 

“Free individual music lessons and weekly concerts are among the best things about Pomona,” Judy Cheng PO '19 said. Indeed, it certainly is a luxury to enjoy a free concert performed by world-class musicians every week. 

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