Festival of Contemporary Art Music features modern classics

What do you call music that is multilayered and complex — that doesn’t reveal its essence immediately, but might hold one’s interest for a lifetime — music that transcends time and language to make manifest the daily and epic struggle to find meaning?

Charles Argersinger calls it contemporary art music, and it will once again be front and center for all to enjoy at WSU’s 17th Festival of Contemporary Art Music, Feb. 9-11 in Kimbrough hall.

The featured composer for the week is Ellsworth Milburn, a founder and emeritus professor of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. Milburn, whose early career included work as a piano accompanist for Second City, went on to a nearly 25-year career at Rice, where his compositions included string quartets that many believe are among the finest ever written.

“I quite simply use (the festival) to promote composers who write music that has depth and balance in emotion, intellect and intuition,” Argersinger said. “It’s hard enough to find a composer with one great piece; it’s another thing to find a composer with so many great pieces that you can make up an entire concert with their work.”

The festival starts with performances of student compositions at 11:10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 9, in Kimbrough followed by an 8 p.m. performance in Bryan of compositions by several of WSU’s award-wining faculty, including Argersinger, Ryan Hare and Greg Yasinitsky.

Milburn’s work will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, in Bryan. Argersinger said he is particularly excited to hear Milburn’s “String Quartet No. 2,” a “brilliant” work Argersinger first heard 20 years ago as part of an audience of music professionals. “We all stood up and gave him thunderous applause,” Argersinger said. “It was that good.”

Other Milburn works at the concert will include “Entendre III,” “Bagatelles,” and “Menil Antiphons,” all performed by WSU faculty and students. Milburn’s “The Stone Forest,” a virtuosic piano piece, will be performed by Ellen Flint, an associate professor of music at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and Milburn’s wife.

“The festival is a good opportunity for people to come out and hear a wide variety of styles of music,” said Gerald Berthiaume, director of the School of Music and Theater Arts. Not only is the music exceptional, he said, but faculty and student musicians have been working very hard to make sure that the performances will be too.

“It’s a big task for everybody,” he said, “and everybody meets that task with just wonderful, wonderful performances.”

While at WSU, Milburn will participate in clinics and master classes with WSU students, as will Victoria Sabo, a composer and music educator from western Washington. Sabo and her husband, Dan, will present a joint piano recital with works by Sabo, Messiaen and Scriabin at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, in Kimbrough hall.

All concerts are free to the public.