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Live Reviews

Concert Review: First Annual Boston String Improvisors' Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004

Birmingham, Alabama violinist LaDonna Smith opened her set with a bit of commentary on the cool temperature of the fall Boston evening: "I know it sounds rather political to say I represent the Southern U.S., so I'd rather say I represent the warmth and the heat." She launched into a quick-paced viola improvisation with high-end harmonics accompanied by low-end harmony. The result was a passionate burst of energy. Smith paused and casually commented, "That's the heat," before launching into more fluttering, shifting, pulsing multiphonic effects. Her early soloing relied upon high solo lines with overtones and the occasional well-matched chordal accompaniment. Indeed, her playing was quite warm.

Three or four times during Smith's performance, her neck pad detached from the instrument. She made a comment to the effect that despite their annoying instability, "neck pads are a necessary evil"—to which Rose snidely replied from the audience: "It's cheaper than getting your neck shortened."

"You have a point," Smith said before initiating a piece combining her violin virtuosity with some well-placed vocal passages. Her singing was clear, open, and bell-like; it harmonized well with the evolving chordal material she played on the violin. Occasionally she would set up a regular groove, then allow it to disintegrate into clustering embers. At critical moments, she played stuttering violin passages with chant-like vocals. At all times, Smith maintained a relaxed, smiling, comfortable affect—making eye contact with the audience and encouraging interaction.

Toward the end of her set, Smith utilized a scratching bowed effect with pizzicato: her playing was busy, noisy, and edgy. She began to walk down the aisle and approach audience members, usually turning up the intensity as she stepped in front of an individual. The audience responses were quite entertaining: some people smiled and nodded their heads, while others shyly slunk back. A woman with a minicam pulled back in order to keep Smith in the video frame. When she pushed her violin in my face, I pushed my ear up directly above her instrument and chased her away.

Betraying her Southern roots, LaDonna Smith gradually slipped into a bluegrass feel toward the end of her performance. She began tapping her foot and playing a jaunty melody. Her fragmentary groove with bits of bluegrass utilized vibrato and overtones to achieve a peculiar combination of the familiar and the unexpected. She quietly faded away into silence, only tapping her foot. The audience, meanwhile, stared intently—perhaps out of fear that she would step in someone's face and start exploding again. Having achieved the desired effect, Smith smiled and said, "You people will listen to anything. Now what?"

As a sort of coda to this interactive portion, Smith played an unamplified violin segment (mostly because the mike fell off her instrument and could not be reattached). Her very emotional approach varied in tone from rough and fiery to legato intensity. The treble melody began to be crowded out by 'volunteer' notes below, and ended up converted to a slippery feel with the addition of vocals. At all points, Smith relied upon a pointed theatrical affect: looking around, smiling, and winking at the audience.

Spontaneous Groups

After a brief intermission, the instrumentalists gathered in novel combinations for a sort of encore to their performances. A trio comprising Kimmig, Bullock, and Rose was surprisingly successful. Rose was clearly the leader and the dominant force, but Kimmig showed amazing sensitivity of tone and a remarkable ability to harmonize with Rose in unpredictable ways. Bullock, overwhelmed by the other performers, played a stuttery, rhythmic pattern and rarely engaged in any melodic play.

A second recombined group comprising LaMaster, Rawlings, and Hübsch took to the stage next. LaMaster played a lead role, but Hübsch was surprisingly outspoken in his tuba performance—utilizing his full range of sound and all the toys at his disposal. Meanwhile Rawlings played a very down-to-earth supporting role, as he did during the Saturnalia performance.

The final performance of the encore started with LaDonna Smith and violinist Kat Hernandez. They harmonized for a softspoken interplay where Smith generally took the lead and Hernandez complemented it with long notes and delicate harmonics. Eventually just about all the players got on stage and the improvisation began to assume an amorphous, scattered feel. If you listened to a specific duo or trio of players, the improvisations made much more sense than if you listened to the group as a whole. But that could just be a matter of experience and taste: I prefer small groups to larger ones, because I tend to lose the abillity to parallel-process sound after about five instruments.


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