in: Reviews

February 9, 2010

Bring On Da Groove—Juventas Digs It

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It was standing room only at the Middle East Upstairs in Central Square, Cambridge, for the Juventas concert on February 7—it had to be, since there were no chairs. This did not materially inconvenience the mostly young and convivial audience, nor was it the only departure from the staid norms of classical concert-going provided by this feisty young ensemble. New venues aside, what we may be experiencing here is a significant infusion of new artistic visions that will keep the classical scene alive.

But enough effusion, it’s time for details: The Juventas program presented young composers (that’s what this group does, after all) seeking inspiration in the worlds of rock, jazz, bluegrass, and other elements of American popular music, all to be manipulated by classical procedural means. This, of course, is not news, as attempts of this sort go back about as far as one can draw distinctions between “high” and popular forms of music, and have continued in an underground way even through the days of academic dodecaphony’s dark dominion. Pop culture influences exist in composers as varied as John Adams, Steve Reich and Steven Mackey, to say nothing of John Zorn and Guy Klucevsek. However, what seems intriguingly new about the works presented Sunday was that, for the most part, they were not just dipping into pop as exotica or as an abstract structural element but were aiming to blur the distinctions between genres—on an iPod playlist this kind of work would mingle happily with whatever rock was going at the moment, and would subtly bridge to Mozart on the same playlist. All the works on the Juventas program were short—nothing over 10 minutes, by my guess. The element that unites most of them (with one clear exception) is the laying down of a consistent rhythmic foundation on which melodic and harmonic changes are rung (sound like classical music before 1910?).

Piotr Szewczyk, also becoming well known as a violinist, was represented by two works: Wild West Sketch, a 2002 piece for string trio (Lisa Park, violin, Ashleigh Gordon, viola, Brandon Brooks, cello, all playing with evident enjoyment), revels in its archetypal pentatonic cowboyisms and multiple other influences, including honky-tonk salon music, in a tight ABA structure full of bounce and sentiment with a wink; we think George Chadwick would have approved. First Coast Groove (2008) for solo violin (Park), played on the second half, lays in a country groove with some neoclassical harmony that suggests Stravinsky meeting Flatt & Scruggs, on equal terms. Ms. Park ripped through this with great panache and verve.

Dan Ruccia is following the traditional academic trajectory, working now on a PhD. at Duke under Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth. He described his 2007 Training Wheels for viola and cello (Gordon, Brooks) as a train race (not a train wreck, please note), and it demonstrates well this generation’s equanimous movement between avant-garde technique and traditional harmonic gestures. The viola begins chugging in ukulele style; the cello part encompasses plenty of gliss, harmonics and percussion; yet everything stays, um, on track, both uphill and dizzyingly downhill.

London-based Harvard alumnus Matthew Mendez based his 2006 Riff (raff) for bass clarinet (Amy Advocat) on a four-bar tune (the riff), which he metamorphoses  (the raff) in an attempt to exploit the salaciously sensual sonorities of the instrument. Ms. Advocat certainly gave the work plenty of oomph and sex appeal in her tone and opulent phrasing. The piece was remarkably restrained, demure even, in its use of performance technique: nothing apart from the usual legato intonation and occasional wide pitch leaps. If this was a technically difficult piece, Ms. Advocat deserves high praise for making it sound easy.

The first half closed with the premiere of Alexander Tovar’s Black Dog Variations, written as a student work in 2006 and re-scored in 2009. Tovar, a Los Angeles native who worked for a while with Philip Glass in New York, says he undertook to set Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog as “a heavy metal minimalist piece.” The expanded version is for Juventas’s full ensemble, an expanded Pierrot group (Zachary Jay, flute, Advocat, Park, Gordon, Brooks, and Julia Carey, keyboard substituting for the piano the Middle East lacks). The theme is stated in unison, and the variations struck this listener as fairly traditionally structured, with additive sonorities that at many points suggest Kurt Weill. It ends charmingly with a fine rhythmic disintegration. The ensemble played crisply and with fine high spirits, under the baton of  the group’s new Associate Conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya.

The second half continued with the one stylistic outlier of the program, Steve Wanna’s 2007 Trayectoria for the full ensemble. This work involves more “traditional” avant-garde procedures, including a graphic notation that directs the players to take their measure of one another and follow various directions for manipulating the musical materials. Interestingly, the musical materials—pitches, durations, rhythms—were not specified, so the basic sound of the piece itself came from the players. That the result sounded more like old-style 1960s experimentalism than the rest of the works on the program is therefore perhaps more an indication of how performers expect these pieces to sound than what the composer might have done for himself—but that’s what you get with conceptual art, no? The conductor, Ms. Yankovskaya, cued certain events but did not conduct in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, the piece developed a certain shape and, dare we say, trajectory.

Anthony Lanman’s Cerulean Soliloquy, for flute and piano (Jay and Carey) was, per the composer’s note, a piece “that wasn’t so… pretty” (composer’s ellipsis). In this effort his success resembled that of Ko-Ko in The Mikado (“He always tries/To tell us lies/And every time, he fails”), for the piece was very attractive indeed. It works with blues-inspired materials (but you knew that already), first in a bustling baroque way, later in a more relaxed mood. The performances appeared flawless and very affecting.

The concert wrapped with David Beidenbender’s Stomp (2004), for the ensemble minus viola. It begins with a deep and coarse groove in the cello; the ensemble keeps this busy motif going while one by one the instruments carry a wailing melody over it in longer note values, to an eventual rousing conclusion. Ms. Yankovskaya and the players kept it humming with intensity, spirit and perfect coordination.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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