in: Reviews

April 30, 2012

BMV’s Challenging Program Explores the World

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Boston Musica Viva provided a challenging program on Friday evening, April 27th, at BU’s Tsai Performance Center. Music Director Richard Pittman led both ensemble and audience through contemporary works that aimed at a synthesis of multicultural sounds and ideas — or maybe it’s better to say “concepts and motives” — all somehow presented in the sound-world of the canonical Western chamber instruments and musical forms. The program, divided neatly into the two halves, presented four different takes at this endeavor, with four composers delving deep into the sound-world of four very different cultures and backgrounds.

The first half presented works by Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann, Ezra Sims, and Eitan Steinberg, complex pieces that somehow presented internalized perspectives of the respective composers’ understanding of their musical backgrounds. Grossmann’s student composition, Mecanismos (2001), for example, contends with both complex musical issues and personal ones. The first movement, “Del Tiempo,” is labyrinthine musical exposition on time and rhythm, while the final movement, “De Poleas y Contrapesos,” concerns itself with issues of percussion and harmony. Interwoven between these two outer movements is a contrast of Spanish and American modes of expression. The second movement, “Del Carrillon, sus almas y engranajes,” loosely based on Lorca’s Poema del Cante Jondo, is sharply juxtaposed to the attaca third movement, “aMEriCANISMOS,” a sprawling depiction of the confused and often frenzied retelling of the sense of patriotism arising from the events of September 11, 2001. If only it were as simple as this, however: Grossmann’s piece manages to integrate these complex themes into an almost stream-of-consciousness screed that draws the audience in to a spare and wonderful sound world that at once demands attention without managing to explain itself.

Although starkly different in thought and conception, Eitan Steinberg’s Two Grandfathers Sing provided a complex personal narrative recapitulating the Ashkenazi and Sephardic heritage of Steinberg and his wife through melodies associated with their grandfathers. It is scored for flute and string quartet. Stark textures and minimalist melodic motives bring the audience from tragedy into enlightenment by accentuating contrasts yet ultimately recapitulating the natural beauty and complexity endemic to these two family gems. Although the work flourished with the complete commitment of all of performers, of particular note was flutist Ann Bobo’s expert navigation.

Five microtonal pieces by Ezra Sims, Landscapes (2008), based on the poetry of Georg Trakl and Friedrich Nietzsche, utilized the 12-tone row for each of the pieces. Sims’s work recast the accompaniment to songs in a chamber setting, without voice. A rich and interesting work, one wonders if the piece may not have seemed as academic in another setting.

A difficult (albeit rewarding) first half gave way to BMV’s world premiere of its 2012 commission, Ka, by Shirish Korde, whose work perhaps most notably graced Boston stages in his 2010 opera, Phoolan Devi (reviewed by the BMInt here). Korde’s work is supremely complicated to hear, perform, and to understand, yet an immediate pleasure to listen to. Steeped in Vedic and Carnatic word-play, Ka playfully negotiates what is apparently a fine line between common and divine, between classical and folk, between speech and music, and — perhaps most impressively — between Eastern and Western music. The games we hear here may be somewhat obvious but still manage to say something clever and fun: although often (sometimes literally) opposed to each other, Indian instrumentalists and Western chamber musicians create something new and exciting that happily manages to eschew the awkward negotiations that are sometimes necessary for adapting World Music to the concert hall. Differences certainly exist; it’s hard not to notice the difference in the fluid straight-tone of Carnatic voice. Carnatic soprano Deepti Navaratna is certainly a promising young presence but seemed needlessly restrained on Friday evening, when paired with the rich vibrato of the cello (Jan Müller-Szeraws), or the quick strokes of the sitar (Chirag Katti). But far more impressive are the similarities: the cognitive assonance that arises when East meets West, invoked to work together on stage. Particularly illustrative is the third movement of KA, in which the tabla (here played by Amit Kavthekar) is placed in front of a miniature percussion section manned by Jonathan Hess. What occurs is almost impossible to describe; a garrulous tabla initiates a sharp competition with percussion that grows in intensity and fervor only to end in a surprisingly affable collaboration between the two musicians and the schools they represent. Although a technically-challenging composition, Korde’s work is certainly worth presenting to a broader audience; with any luck, Friday’s performance of the work will not be its last.

Certainly, success for performances of this kind is an elusive goal. The four very different works are aimed for different ends and different approaches; it is to BMV’s credit that all four were able to appear on a single program. That they delivered such a daring program with such a high level of engagement certainly makes Boston Musica Viva valuable. Friday marked the final performance of the 2011-2012 season; BMV begins next season on September 28 with yet another adventurous program: Harbison’s Mirabai Songs, Lieberson’s Raising the Gase, Vores’s Umberhulk, and compositions from the semi-finalists of the Rapido! composition contest.

Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various choral groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.

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