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Arcana New Music Ensemble shows range at University Lutheran Church

Donald Hunt reviews the new resident ensemble for Bowerbird, Arcana New Music Ensemble. He details the group's incredible stylistic range while introducing us to a few of its members, and speaks to the acoustic richness of University Lutheran Church.


Arcana New Music Ensemble just celebrated its first anniversary as the permanent resident ensemble of the non-profit experimental arts music presenter, Bowerbird. Pursuing a mission to perform “interesting, beautiful, and unconventional music,” the group closed their 2016-17 season at University Lutheran Church on June 25 with a rousing recital that went from Classical riffs on birds to John Cage’s austere, silence-embracing works to an early free jazz piece. For someone like myself who has a free-wheeling taste in music, this recital especially spoke to me.

Meet the Ensemble

The Philadelphia-based Arcana New Music Ensemble, made up of 25 musicians, separates itself from the pack by giving their musicians the freedom to take part in programming the recitals. In total, 8 of the Ensemble’s 25 musicians performed in this recital.

Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux kicked off the evening. A set of 13 pieces performed by pianist Michael Tan, the impressionistic short works were conceived as homage to birds, both in the rejuvenating sounds of coos and the natural environment of the bird habitat. Messiaen used a flickering of the piano’s upper keys to represent the innocence of birds. The pieces also made use of four dissonant chords, complex lines, and wistful colors, all of which Tan evoked wonderfully.

Emma Resmini Arcana New Music Ensemble
Flautist Emma Resmini performs with the Arcana New Music Ensemble; courtesy of Bowerbird.

The Franco Donatoni-composed Fili was filled with sputtering action from flautist Emma Resmini and pianist David Hughes. Each line was so excitingly sporadic that when Resmini would play the rare long, sustained notes, it felt like the audience earned that calmer change of pace before the piece ended on a whiplash high of pitch and energy.

In contrast, another work for flute and piano by John Cage had many sustained notes and pauses. A long chord played by pianist Tan completely dissipates, creating much space – a bit too austere for my taste. But, another John Cage composition, Aria, was a showstopper, led by a sparkling performance from soprano Alize Rozsnyai, who used many props to bring this solo piece to life: camera, match, soda can, and other objects. These were all in the spirit of the aria’s entertaining but super random nature. Cage’s composition is vocally demanding, asking the soprano to spin descending vocal lines straight into eccentric character in spoken word — one after the next, showcasing Rozsnyai’s acting prowess. Flipping from singing to speaking can get tiring very quickly and Rozsnyai made it seem like this was another day in the office for her.

Tessa Ellis Arcana New Music Ensemble
Trumpeter Tessa Ellis performs with the Arcana New Music Ensemble; courtesy of Bowerbird.

The recital concluded with Stefan Wolpe’s Quartet for Trumpet, Saxophone, Percussion, and Piano performed by trumpeter, Tessa Ellis, saxophonist, Aaron Stewart, pianist David Hughes and percussionist Andy Thierauf. The two-movement work was composed in 1950 and sounds like a precursor to the free jazz movement in the 60s when Ornette Coleman was shaking up the jazz world in a controversial way. Charlie Parker was the dominant jazz figure at the time of the work’s premiere and I had a difficult time not hearing his influence in the saxophone line. Aaron Stewart and I discussed after the concert that Parker would have likely turned down playing this piece (even though he knew Stefan Wolpe) as he was too consumed by his own compositions to commit any additional time to someone else’s musical guidelines.

Included between the longer works in the recital were four interludes composed by Kenneth Amis. An interlude is a short movement in between a longer, significant work, and these by Amis were spread throughout the evening. The interludes were written for trumpet, flute, saxophone, and double bass and played by trumpeter Tessa Ellis, flautist Emma Resmini, saxophonist Aaron Stewart, and double bassist Josh Machiz. All of the interludes showed a contrapuntal mastery of four distinct lines, each with its own voice and story, woven together with respect for each of the individual voices.

A Venue Divine

I have sung in West Philadelphia’s University Lutheran Church in the past, and it truly is a wonderful place to make music, as the acoustics pop off the wall like a slingshot. The Arcana Ensemble shone in the acoustically bright space. A wonderful discovery for music lovers in Philadelphia, The Arcana Ensemble is a treat for those who crave a mix of music from varied artistic approaches,

For more information on the Arcana New Music Ensemble, visit Bowerbird’s website at