in: Reviews

September 20, 2010

Corpses Exquisite and Otherwise at Juventas’s Season Opener

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The title of Juventas New Music Ensemble’s first concert of its season, on September 18 at Killian Hall, MIT (where we caught it) and September 19 at Seully Hall at Boston Conservatory, was “The Exquisite Corpse,” referring to the game in art and letters in which one person begins a work, and then succeeding participants continue it in blithe ignorance of, or disregard for, what came before. As applied to this concert, however, the gravamen of the title had more to do with the use of dance — for which none of the works performed had been intended — to supplement, interpret and (so to speak) incarnate the music. Some of the pieces themselves, moreover, embodied (sorry) fleshly concerns relating to music production, of which more later.

This was a mostly enjoyable concert, so let’s get our complaints over with first. One, Killian Hall is not a very felicitous venue for several reasons, but in this program its poor sight lines made a lot of the action by dancers and musicians inaccessible to much of the audience; it is also a hot, stuffy, and airless room. Two, the concert was overlong, with eight pieces, each of which required setup time, tuning, and so forth. Three, while we are grudgingly acclimating to the inevitable welcomes and announcements that accompany concert performances these days (and which, in our view, render them a bit less professional in tone), we’re not sure why Juventas chose to have each piece introduced with commentary, when whatever was supplemental to the program notes could simply have been added to them — or is this one of those generational differences we written-word types just don’t get?

Okay, so now to the meat of the matter (sorry, sorry). The program began with Breath, by Greek composer Phivos Kollias. The idea, elaborately conveyed by his overwrought program note, was to invoke the physical connection between players and their instruments by using audible breath as an expressive element. There was also a bit about positioning sounds in space, which is basically to say that the music offers a variety of note densities, both horizontal and vertical. The music itself is fortunately better than the note would lead you to expect, heavy breathing and all. The tympani introduce an elemental figure in fourths and fifths, and the strings contrast scurrying linear patterns. This was one of the works choreographed for the occasion, and while we confess that dance is not our métier, the choreography and its execution seemed well suited to the music, both as echo and commentary. The ensemble, which was well prepared and alert to the work’s essential perkiness, consisted of Lisa Park and Sara Matayoshi, violins, Russell Wilson, viola, Rachel Arnold, cello, Peter Ferretti, bass and Brian Calhoon, percussion, ably led by Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya, who breathed her last to conclude the work, yet miraculously lived to conduct again. The corps de ballet comprised choreographer Kate Ladenheim, Dave Glista, and Jessica Davison.

There followed one of the outliers on the program, Transverse Fractures for flute and piano by Peter Van Zandt Lane. Full disclosure: Mr. Lane is a colleague of ours here at BMInt and also at Dinosaur Annex, where he is general manager. The music for this work is, he tells us, salvaged from an earlier piece. We’re glad he took the trouble to rework it, as it is very attractive, much more so than his program note. (Unsolicited advice to composers: program notes are not your dissertation; just tell us what to look out for and maybe a little about how it’s put together.) In the event, Mr. Lane has put together a handsome ABA work, fast-slow-fast, though we suspect he has not yet found his own distinctive voice. Flutist Zachary Jay and pianist Julia Scott Carey carried it off well.

Juraj Kojs’s VIII for piano and pianist gave a whole new meaning to the word “toccata.” The pitched musical content of this essentially percussion piece (actually a series of pieces, per the title and program note, though they were all, um, played, um, attacca) is negligible — a passage from Bach (later a few notes of Beethoven), and then a series of explorations: circumambulating  the piano, touching it in a variety of ways: rapping on the keyboard lid (with and without pedal) and case, stroking the strings, brushing the keys, etc., down to the grand finale of polishing it with a rag. We can think of this charitably — and who knows, maybe even accurately — as a satirical take on the performer-instrument interface. Those of us who lived through the ’60s have seen it all before and mostly wish it would stay in its grave. Alas, those who do remember Santayana are forever condemned to repeat him. Pianist Ian Garvie kept a poker face and dignified mien throughout, and his Bach was pretty good.

The first half of the concert concluded with Brian Mark’s String Quartet No. 2, dating from 2005 and thus the oldest work on the program. It is a conventionally laid out three-movement work, with inspiration drawn from San Francisco (down to the fog) and the composer’s states of mind there — the program note describing all this is so self-referential it is a classic in deadpan humor (example: “The first movement…is energetic and agitated since at that time Brian Mark was looking forward to writing a string quartet…”). The musical development, attractive and intelligible, comes right out of the Classical-Romantic playbook; we’d love to hear it again. The last movement, “Dance,” was choreographed by Gerald Watson and danced by him and Marlee Couto, though in this case we were unsure what this added to the music. The quartet consisted of Mesd. Park and Matayoshi, violins, Mr. Wilson, viola, and Ms. Arnold, cello, who all gave a persuasive, transparent and seemingly accurate reading.

The second half began well with the local première of Panamanian-born Andres Carrizo’s Por el momento for Pierrot ensemble and percussion. Its gestures include the juxtaposition of a fierce chord and sustained note against a proto-melody in the piano. The working-out furnishes a pleasantly diverse array of sound styles. There were many “special effects,” especially for piano, but these often went unheard due to dense textures and volume in the other parts. All the individual performers were secure and effective in their parts: Mr. Jay, flute; Tun-Man Ho, clarinet; Ms. Park, violin, Mr. Wilson, viola, Ms. Arnold, cello; Ms. Carey, piano, and Mr. Calhoon, percussion. Conducting was Mr. Garvie, who kept everything together and moving, but who could have paid better attention to the sound balance.

Boston composer William Zuckerman’s Subcutaneous Salvation for two pianos (Mesd. Carey and Yankovskaya) was choreographed and danced by Giulia Pline. The agreeable music has fragrances of jazz, rock, modalism, and pentatonicism, and sometimes suggests Poulenc and other times William Schuman. We were not fully persuaded by the musical progression to the promised salvation; we were quite perplexed by the choreography, which seemed often to contradict the musical development.

Tango Variations by Israeli Noam Faingold, was arranged by the composer for cello (Ms. Arnold) and bass (Mr. Ferretti) from an original for two basses. The motivating force here is a sound one: to take a tango, disassemble and refract it. The first movement limns a tango such as “a young Webern’s Tango would sound like.” The second movement (some confusion here: the composer’s note describes three movements, the program lists only two) takes fragments and, pace the term variation, develops them. Alas, the composer, who claims South American roots, has sacrificed the elemental force of the tango’s (or even Piazzolla’s New Tango’s) rhythmic and harmonic vitality to an unnecessarily objectified and desiccated abstraction. The performers made all the right moves, but we were bemused more than moved by the output.

The finale of the program was Canadian composer Nicolas Tzortzis’s What the Wave Meant, which deals with a somber matter indeed, the death at age 27 of fellow Canadian composer Andrew Svoboda. We found it curious that this, unlike most of the works on the program, was not choreographed, though it might have benefited greatly from dance expression. The music was mostly sere and fittingly expressive of typically contradictory responses to death. The opening evokes both the chaos at the beginning of Haydn’s Creation and the keening of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. There are passages of passion and quiet frenzy; the closing, Kubler-Ross notwithstanding, tells of anger. The composer’s technique requires considerable ugliness of string sonority, as well as slow descending glisses. The execution was all excellent, with a standout flute cadenza by Mr. Jay, with Mr. Ho on clarinet, Shaw Pong Liu, violin, Mr. Wilson, viola, Ms. Arnold, cello, and Ms. Scott, piano, all under Ms. Yankovskaya’s baton. At the end of a very long program, we were left unsure of our reaction to the piece, other than to note its obvious sincerity.

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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