New England’s Prospect: Looking Backward

Maybe it’s the city’s surplus of heritage, maybe it’s autumnal reminiscence, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the start of the season in Boston brought a bumper crop of new music deliberately glancing off older music and/or styles. That’s part and parcel with contemporary music—the past is always present, even if only as something to deliberately ignore—and the new-old juxtaposition is practically orthodox in mainstream classical programming. But the sentiment was everywhere this month, in a way that sought to borrow a little of the past’s authenticity, rather like someone who enjoys ordering a classic cocktail as much for the accumulated history as the taste (raises hand). And while the ideal is a real discussion among eras, there were at least a couple concerts where the novelties were needed to clear away the past’s clutter.

Old Masters

The perpetual churn of students in the Boston area tends to create all manner of entrepreneurial new-music groups, be they opportunistic, evangelical, or just plain quixotic. Some of them are swept out by the matriculating tide—Zradci, a personal favorite, offered a couple seasons’ worth of Cageian fun, but then seemed to simply drift off—but some of them find more of a berth. Juventas is one of the ones that has stuck around, with a mission statement about “voic[ing] the musical culture of the present by featuring repertoire of composers age 35 and under” (a sentiment both laudably direct and vaguely disconcerting, in a Logan’s Run kind of way)—but this season, the group is actively promoting dialogue with the past. Their season’s first concert, “Spark! New Music and Its Origins,” was concerned with the mentor-student relationship, both direct and indirect.

The opener reached back far indeed: Mark Oliveiro’s Thunor’s Gate took its inspiration from Thor, the god of thunder. (“Þunor” was his Anglo-Saxon name.) The music itself aimed to conjure mists of time and long-reverberating echoes of mighty heroes in loose, drone-anchored fashion, David Balandrin blowing melancholy French horn calls into an electronic landscape of the sort of metallic-tinged feedback characteristic of the Max/MSP software used to generate it. When the music did move, it opted for mixed-meter grooves reminiscent of early prog-rock workouts—in fact, the entire piece had more than a little of that genre atmosphere: mythologically programmatic, melodically modal, formally meandering, indulgently long, and perhaps better experienced under the influence of certain mind-altering substances. Thor sounded more than a little hammered, anyway.

The mentorships proper began with the influence of György Ligeti. The man himself was represented by three movements of his early, snappy Musica Ricercata (as played by Julia Scott Carey, crisp and fluent but also curiously solemn and distant) as well as two movements from his Sonata for solo viola (which Emily Deans dispatched with abundant flair). Ligeti’s influence was illustrated by Jonathan Blumhofer’s 2010 septet …einfach/schwer…?, conducted by Avlana Eisenberg: aviaries of extended techniques, nimbly woven together, occasionally coalescing into folkish, foot-stompable melodies—down-to-earth content launched into floating, sonic clouds. Ryan Chase’s txts fm györgy, with clarinetist Marguerite Levin joining Balandrin, Means, and Carey, amplified Ligeti’s cheeky side into bright, pop-art saturation, quick-fire riffs (primarily on the late-period, ostinato-driven Ligeti of the Etudes and the Horn Trio) rendered with the cleverly concentrated familiarity of a good impressionist.

The other mentor was the Montreal-based Philippe Leroux, whose 1992 Air-ré was a terrific piece—a skittish exercise in heterophony and klangfarbenmelodie, compellingly spare and unfailingly sure-footed, for the surprisingly fertile combination of violin (Ethan Wood) and pitched percussion (Brian Calhoon). Leroux’s student Nicolas Tzortzis posited a program surrounding the process of learning in the notes to his quintet Amenable, a conceit that conductor (and Juventas music director) Lidiya Yankovskaya, in a short speech, somewhat irritatingly tried to connect to the topic of 9/11, the anniversary of which coincided with the concert. In the actual playing, both frameworks proved irrelevant, as Amenable proved a worthy experience based on sound alone, an astringently colorful, confidently decorated piece of post-serial modernism, walking a polished, refined line between tone and noise.

***

Wheel of Fortune

Opera in Boston, historically, has followed a classic pattern of overindulgence. The city was spoiled by the conductor/impresario Sarah Caldwell’s flights of irresponsibly grand fancy throughout the ’70s and ’80s; when her Opera Company of Boston finally collapsed in the early ’90s, having finally run out of financial duct tape and paper clips, the result was a hangover that has only recently begun to dissipate. Entrepreneurship, though, abhors a vacuum. Guerilla Opera, started by another recent-graduate cohort, now has six world premieres under its belt, with a seventh coming in the spring. (Their recording of Curtis Hughes’s cheerfully cracked mirror Say It Ain’t So, Joe, comes out later this year.)

Their latest project was Loose, Wet, and Perforated, by Nicholas Vines, which sought to update that staple of medieval entertainment, the morality play. The unscrupulous Loose (Adriana de la Guardia) and the conscience-stricken Wet (Jonathan Nussbaum) are run through a gauntlet of ordeals under the eye of a Master (Jan Zimmerman) and the blustering commentary of a Narrator (Rebekah Alexander). Wet’s defeats are perpetual, Loose’s triumphs are perpetually hollow, and the whole plot revolves back to its origin, a nihilistic combination of Vico and Brecht.

Nihilism does feel pretty modern, but the discourse includes an awful lot of alienating archaisms. (Surely there is a more immediately contemporary subject for the characters to blasphemously slander than a medieval abbot; surely there are more potent stand-ins for the downtrodden than those fairy-tale standbys, the baker and the cowherd.) And both Vines’s libretto and Jeremy Bloom’s direction were an odd non-mixture of the hermetic and the obvious. A production that has a main character sing, over and over, “Why must I climb the greasy pole?,” while fondling an actual wooden pole, is not exactly entrusting the audience with delicate allegories; but other machinations seemed arbitrary or curiously obscure. The plot seemed to want to channel the genre’s capacity for moral scolding while satirizing it at the same time. (An erotically comic, farcical “Ordeal of Fire” turned out to be the opera’s most focused scene.)

The music, though, was terrific—kitchen-sink expressionism, edgy, bright, and entertaining as hell. Vines makes an unlikely four-player orchestra—clarinet, saxophone, trombone, and percussion—pay seemingly endless dividends. And the cast was game, both vocally and dramatically. If the musical presentation didn’t quite fix the dramatic solecisms, it certainly carried the listener through them in cracking style.

***

lachrymae academicae

The Longy School of Music, a Cambridge bastion of French-style musical pedagogy, has seen its affiliation with Bard College blossom into a full-out assimilation, with a merger scheduled to be completed this year. The move has hardly enjoyed unanimous support among the faculty; maybe, given the dissent, it was in a lemonade-from-lemons spirit that the school made “Transformations” the theme of this year’s annual faculty-and-student, five-concert Septemberfest mini-jamboree. At the very least, it lent some frisson to the fact that the new-music concert of the bunch, structured as another old-meets-modern affair, took as its jumping-off point the Renaissance lament.

Given the thriving early-music community in Boston, I always hold out hope for such combinations; the modern early-music movement and the modern modern-music movement both sprang from the same anti-Romantic reaction, after all. In this concert, though, the newer music, again, seemed to ride to the concert’s rescue like a relief column. The old laments were, on paper, choice: a selection of works both vocal and instrumental by John Dowland (with one interloper, Johann Schop). The performance, though, was mostly lamentable, unfocused and enervated. Refusing to submit to the discipline of Dowland’s rhythmic grid, it turns out, doesn’t make the music more expressive, it just makes it limp.

The historical kids, though, were alright. David Sampson’s 1995 brass quintet Morning Music (given a solid performance by the Redline Brass Quintet) comes by its lamenting honestly, being a memorial for his brother, one of the victims of this example of the country’s seemingly unlimited capacity for undermining its own rhetorical ideals. And Sampson does surreptitiously indict musical Americana a bit, setting up Coplandesque and Reichian moods only to rebuke them with jagged outbursts. But on the whole, Morning Music is more exploratory than confrontational, a twisting narrative of continual interest.

Paul Brust’s 1999 Lament worked its vein of chromatically garnished Romanticism with polish and ample opportunity for expressive display by cellist Ying Jun Wei and pianist Ester Ning Yau. (The piece did have, I thought, too many endings, although I have noticed myself having that complaint about so many neo-Romantic pieces that I am willing to consider it less a criticism than a personal failure to accept an essential stylistic feature.) There followed four settings of a Denise Levertov poem by Longy students, though nobody could quite agree on the title. Levertov called it “…That Passeth All Understanding,” and so did composer Tsunenori Lee Abe, but Erica Glenn left out the “All,” Daniela DeMatos left out the ellipsis, and Kwaumane Brown put the phrase back in its Phillippianic context, adding “The Peace of God.” (Even Longy itself got in the alterations, calling the concert “Thus Passeth All Understanding,” a different sentiment entirely.)

The settings, though, were quite accomplished. It’s always fun to hear student composers’ vocal works, because it reveals what the touchstones for vocal setting are from generation to generation—forty years ago, it would have been Pierrot Lunaire and Le marteau sans maître; twenty years ago, it would have been Nixon in China. Now, judging from this (admittedly small) sample, the stars of both Samuel Barber and the newer Broadway composers—Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel—are in the ascendant. All the songs were in a lyrical vein, solidly tonal, gently dissonant, with admirably clear and logical text-setting (given enviable professional attention by soprano Karol Ryczek and pianist—and Longy dean—Wayman Chin). My favorite was Brown’s, a hymn-tinged recitative against sparse, pointillistic piano, the line drifting in and out of motivic coherence.

The evening ended with a pair of electroacoustic works by Jeremy Van Buskirk, in which that default CSound-Max/MSP-ish tinge was again in evidence. (I swear, every piece of electronic music I’ve heard in the past ten years has had a section that sounds like locusts swarming around The Vibraphone at the End of the Universe.) Van Buskirk, though, has an awful lot of compensatory virtues: a solid sense of form and drama, an inviting, peek-a-boo approach to the way he handles his musique concrète found sounds. The Root of All Evil rang propulsive, growling changes on cascading coins and shuffling cards; For the Love of Laughter works ambient recordings of that sound into what the composer presented as an “aural scrabook of a wonderful experience.” Truth be told, my reaction was almost the direct opposite—with the laughs smeared into reverberant shrieks, over ominous rumbles, it was more like the disorienting terror of a bad trip. I still had a good time.

By that point, the call-and-response intention of old and new seemed to have been long-forgotten. The concert had, in fact, started with a friendly warning about the capacity for such dialogues. Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid (given intimate scale by oboist Robert Sheena) take stories from the Roman poet and give them deliberately sketchy musical analogues—”Pan” noodles aimlessly, “Phaeton” and his fall are viewed as if from far, far away. The Metamorphoses turn out to be less about the events themselves than the distance introduced by the act of their telling.

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