As part of its “Conservatory Connections” series, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art hosted “Light Salon,” a performance by The Petrella Ensemble last Friday.
The ensemble is made of Diane Helfers Petrella, associate professor of piano, and her husband, Nick Petrella, adjunct professor of percussion for the Conservatory.
The Petrella Ensemble employs the use of a grand piano coupled with a marimba and a vibraphone. This combination of instruments may seem strange and almost lacking in audible sustenance, but when experienced live, it’s the exact opposite.
The selection of songs the ensemble chose created a perfect musical journey through heightened contemporary expressionism in modern music. That confronted the audience on an emotional scale. Giant hulks of sound seemed to occupy the entire room and held every member of the audience in a state of prolonged tension.
Composer Aleksandra Vrebakov’s 2009 work “The Spell” uses tension well and turns the piano and vibraphone against each other as vicious beasts circling one other, waiting to attack.
The beginning of the song makes the audience feel like a horrible atrocity is about to take place. The vibraphone quietly works out a somber melody as the piano tries to over power it, ending every exchange with an abrupt smash of the lower keys. This musical expletive gradually increased to a point when the pianist flung her arms as she played, creating a spectacle for the audience.
It reaches ahead when the Petrellas finally clashed in the middle of the song, caught in a whirlwind of chords and volume, filling the space with a chaotic fog of noise. After a brief and eerie moment only hearing the echoes of the exchange, the two suddenly broke out in systemic loud strikes. The Petrellas pounded their instruments, rattling the floor and hanging light fixtures.
Once this was over, the two instruments worked together again, but it was too late. Then they could only play a sorrowful song of regret, with all the mirth of a funeral dirge.
The raw emotion released in the music took the concert beyond conventional forms of everyday easy listening music to something more. It was no longer just a piece of music being heard in a room. It was more than that. It was a true performance.
This sense of life was made all the more powerful by the interior of the Lens Room of the Nelson-Atkins Bloch wing. This modern and open space makes it perfect for this collection of music.
The lighting in the surrounding walls comes up from the bottom and gives the room a space-age, hypodermic feel. The only other light is from the hanging light fixtures, light bulbs housed in handcrafted glass apertures. They are like glass lilies weeping the faintest golden glow on the scene.
All this came together to provide a human experience. This is not the greatest form of music; it’s the greatest form of art.