in: Reviews

May 15, 2011

Many Modern Compositional Styles from NEC

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Jordan Hall played host to the latest installment of the New England Conservatory’s Composer Series, featuring the works of NEC students and faculty, last Tuesday, May 10. The program included a broad representation of modern compositional styles, ranging from Neo-Classicism to highly abstracted Conceptualism. The performers, members of the NEC student community, offered competent and engaging performances in the service of their compositional colleagues.

First on the program was Osnat Netzer’s Not Shy (2010), a work for violin and double bass. According to the composer, the work represents a dialogue between a “romantic couple… cooing, arguing… and finally making up.” This sequence also lent an element of form to the work; the oozing counterpoint of long slides which opens the work gave way to violent outbursts, eventually rounding the progression with a return to the long slides. Netzer’s other selection on the program, Obsessive Folksing (2010), is also an instrumental duet featuring two uncommonly-paired instruments (in this case, flute and ‘cello). The composer describes this work as two voices attempting to sing a folk tune but getting “stuck” on a single melodic fragment. Although the formal organization of this work was not as immediately perceptible as his earlier piece, the basic arch, created by varying levels of intensity and volume, was clear. Netzer also employed heterophonic dialogue, emphasizing further the slight temporal disparity by setting one voice as bowed, the other plucked.

Next on the program was the world premiere of Andreia Pinto Correia’s …e murmuren vosas bocas/and your mouth shall murmur (2011), performed by oboist Amanda Hardy. The work is meant to reflect the “poetic forms and…related ratios” of Arab-Andalusian poetry native to the westernmost region of the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Portugal). Correia employs an harmonic idiom with a distinctly Eastern flavor, though without exaggerating those to the point of creating an “exotic” feel. The music opens with a melodic line characterized by a high frequency of trilled notes; as the piece progresses, this opening melodic style frequently returns, each time giving way to melodies of varying character. This return to the opening melodic style creates an overall shape which gives the impression of a free-flowing consciousness that always returns to its origin. Hardy skillfully executed the work’s frequent rapid register changes as well as its numerous extended performance techniques.

Tenor Christoper Aaron Smith and pianist Artem Belogurov took the stage to perform Randal Despommier’s song set, Sleep Now, O You Unquiet Heart (2011), a setting of a group of texts on the subject of unrequited love. The work includes two settings of poems from Walt Whitman’s Calamus and one from his Song of Myself; hearing “Walt Whitman whispering in the background” of James Joyce’s “Sleep Now” from his Chamber Music, Despommier set this poem as the work’s closing selection. Performers Smith and Belogurov gave an especially moving rendition, with musical expression and dramatic discretion that powerfully conveyed the texts. Despommier’s work is reminiscent of Beethoven’s immortal An die ferne Geliebte; both texts tell the story of the unhappy lover, moving from languid expression to frustration and even anger, though in the end returning to the pallid resignation; like Beethoven, Despommier also used the vocalist as the voice of the poet’s external thoughts and feelings, with the instrumentalist “working out” the development of more abstract motivic material.

Matti Kovler’s Testa di Santa Caterina (2010) for soprano, countertenor, clarinet, ‘cello, and electronics is a setting of a testament by Saint Catherine, written in 1377, describing the insights and visions she experienced during one of her mystical experiences. Like Despommier’s song set, this work was performed with the house lights up, which weakened the traditional “mystical gulf” between the performers and the audience. Soprano Ariadne Greif, who served as the voice of Saint Catherine, displayed an impressive level of engagement, moving effectively between sung and spoken portions of the text while remaining firmly engaged in the drama itself. Kovler’s composition was often highly abstracted, as motivic fragments freely moved in and out of the overall texture; the composer created contrasts by engineering momentary confluences of these disparate elements. The strongest confluence of motivic and even harmonic structure was when Saint Catherine speaks of her vision, in which her head was separated from her body — foreshadowing the post-mortem removal of her head, which was done so that some part of her body could rest in her native town of Siena (she was interred in Rome). Countertenor Tomas Cruz made a separate entrance onstage, representing Catherine’s vision of the “Humble Lamb”; though Cruz performed the part ably, he was often overbalanced by the instrumental ensemble.

John Heiss’s Soliloquy (2007) for flute and piano, like several other works on the program, offered a clear formal structure, including a rounding of the presentation of performance textures. Soliloquy began with the flute played into the piano, creating sympathetic vibrations in the strings; the following sections featured a continuous working out of the basic motivic cell in the flute over what seemed to be stacked chords of the same cell in the piano. Before the return to the opening texture (again, with the flute playing into the piano), the pair presented a series of “arpeggiations” of the basic cell, a device reminiscent of the harmonic “re-transition” of traditional sonata form.

The concert closed with Derek David’s String Quartet No. 1, “Of Narcissus and Echo” (2010; revised 2011). Of all the works on the program, this one was most clearly based in classical models — a long fugue which opened the work, closed with a unison statement of the fugal line. String Quartet No. 1’s affinity to the quartets of Bela Bartók, particularly the popular String Quartet No. 4 (1927), may be observed in David’s use of these classical forms, as well as the exaggerated musical gestures, which often create “stylized grotesqueries” of the nineteenth-century Viennese style. Again following Classical convention, the composer provides a lyrical melody to contrast the opening theme; also like Bartók, David employs a secondary melody with folk-tune characteristics. A dramatic physical gesture closed the work, providing yet another reminiscence of the great Viennese quartets’ performance tradition.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

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