Tongue-in-cheek electronic music is not terribly plentiful, making last night's "Fantasy Quintet" by Dexter Morrill a delightful treat. Opening the 20th Century Consort's final concert for the season, Morrill's piece was billed as a quintet for piano and computer, with Lambert Orkis flanked by four strong-willed loudspeakers.
Amid familiar bleeps and toots were what sounded like a nasty kid tapping on his desk at school. Over all this was the piano. The first movement echoed Bernstein's Mass with its semi-cha-cha beat so beloved in shopping center organs. Then came a romantic parody followed by a ragtime that came closer to Stravinsky than to Joplin. Orkis, using his elbows as well as his deft hands, was disarming.
The program closed with George Crumb's "Ancient Voices of Children." The work seems less profound yet prettier with every hearing, and last night its splendors were a revelation. That the texts were impossible to understand most of the time was just as well, since Crumb has betrayed precious little acquaintance with the meaning of Garcia Lorca's poetry; what he does know is its sound. "Ancient Voices" begins with the poem, rather than mirroring it.
Mezzo-soprano Lucy Shelton soared, even in the dry Baird Auditorium acoustics. Hers is an almost slavic timbre, nicely even and lyrically expressive. A breathy edge in the top notes was effective here, and her whispering of lines like "with my tongue full of love and agony" was memorable. With all its quarter-tones, the instrumental writing remains dangerously close to the Hollywood sand-and-sandal soundtracks, even when played as brilliantly as the Consort did. Nina Basescu, a remarkable young girl, was used instead of the boy soprano the text demands. When she joined Shelton singing into the amplified piano's strings, the sounds had a rare mesmerizing quality.
The evening also continued the Bartok birthday party, with a rough and handsome reading of the 1939 Quartet No. 6 by the Emerson Quartet.