in: Reviews

March 28, 2017

Juventas Takes Flight

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Juventas’s Project Fusion series infused Harvard Square’s night club-inspired Oberon Theater with the spark of new music and innovation last Wednesday in “Music In Flight,” an unusual audio-visual collaboration among contemporary classical composers and aerialists, acrobats, and jugglers.

Juventas takes its name from the ancient Roman goddess of youth. In keeping with her mystique, the ensemble’s mission is to champion works by new and emerging, living composers. Its collaborative, cross disciplinary productions deliver novelty and flair, injecting a dimension of inventiveness rarely seen in classical performance. Past Project Fusion shows have included collaborations with dancers, painters, scientists, poets, visual artists, puppeteers, and robots.

“Music in Flight” began with Itasca, a piano piece by appositely-named New York composer, Robert Fleitz. Originally commissioned to accompany a choreographed dance piece, it is named after the plane on which Amelia Earhart flew her last flight. Its dreamy, flowing melodic lines and ambrosial glissandi evoke the mystery that echoes Earhart’s uncanny disappearance—seemingly into thin air. Pianist Julia Scott Carey’s ethereal presence added to Itasca’s surreal glow.

The bewitchingly idiosyncratic Hire Wire Act by Laura Schwendinger, the first composer to win the Berlin Prize, next spun misshapen timbral textures into a specter via Juventas’s flute, viola, violin, cello, and piano. Led by its phenomenal conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, the ensemble portrayed Schwendinger’s vision of aerial artists soaring.

Oliver Caplan’s You Are Not Alone, scored for violin, cello and piano, then had its East Coast premiere. Its four movements—Diagnosis, Grief, Acceptance, and Transformation—were inspired by the composer’s witnessing his mother battle with and survival of breast cancer. He disclosed that the illness also took his grandmother’s life years earlier. Stirringly evocative, it takes the listener on a journey through the various stages of coping with the disease. Before it began, Caplan asked that everyone who has battled or has known someone who has battled breast cancer raise a hand; an overwhelming majority of those in attendance had. Tori Markwalder appeared suspended from a hoop above our heads, invoking the majestic throughout.

Jeremy Rapaport-Stein’s The Bird on a String for violin, cello and flute incorporated wailing slides and various extended techniques as it reflected the purposefully spasmodic movement of birds flying in heavy wind: “They tend to flutter up gradually, stay frozen for a moment at the top of their flightpath, and then zoom downwards quickly.” Indeed, with its unexpected twists and turns, this vividly represented the specialized flight.

Leo Hurley’s On the Wind for marimba, violin, and clarinet closed the first half. Aerialists Sophia Herscu and Alexis Hedrick collaborated on long ropes hanging from Oberon’s ceiling.

After intermission, Dragon Flight, the second movement of Scott Wheeler’s piano quartet, Dragon Mountain, took center stage. Drawing on Celtic folk tradition, it began with acrobats Lauren Breunig, Tim Ellis, Alexis Hedrick, and Sophia Herscu dancing in a circle. After a whirlwind of percussive piano, the playful movement wistfully fades out.

Originally written for pianist and composer Robert Fleitz, Ross Griffey’s All Suddenly the Wind Comes Soft saw its Boston premiere with Julia Scott Carey’s stellar performance. Its three movements—Fast, Playful; Pensive, Lyrical; Tempestuous, Dramatic—reflect on Rupert Brooke’s poem, Song, which contemplates the multifaceted elements of life reflected in spring. The piece’s wide range of dynamics, repetitive, single note motives, and peculiar arpeggios create unexpected sonorities composed almost entirely of rapid 16th notes and faster. Its use of pedal constructs a spectral aural suspension, which complimented Scott Carey’s serious and focused playing. Both performer and piece exuded mysterious enchantment.

Next came a true showstopper: Nate Tucker and Tim Ellis’ Rhythm in Motion. This mind-bending percussive piece was created solely from Ellis’s juggling and Tucker’s snare drum. As they juggled balls, they created shaking sounds that Ellis used to form elaborate rhythms, which he combined with Tucker’s drumming. The synesthetic work beguiled the eyes and ears to process a catchy, complex song through the acrobatic movements of this fine juggler-musician. Ellis is something sui generis!

Lidiya Yankovskaya (file photo)

Dan Shore’s excerpt from his opera Freedom Ride, a work in progress, is set in 1961 New Orleans, telling the story of a young African American student becoming slowly drawn into the Civil Rights Movement. Dressed in period costume, two charismatic singers embodied Shore’s drama. Juventas will premiere the complete Freedom Ride’s in spring 2018.

Alex Williams’s Adrenaline closed the night, as Lauren Breunig appeared on sliding trapeze. It depicts the feeling induced by adrenaline through complex rhythm changes and meter as well as energetic, driving momentum. On the final note, Breunig dropped upside down from the ceiling with her ankles bound around her rope, in a thrilling, fitting end to a night of new by Juventas…it really should be on everyone’s radar.

In keeping with its passion for innovation, Juventas will bring Boston’s more than 30 new-music ensembles together in a full-fledged Boston New Music Festival this fall which will include an operatic centerpiece, numerous ensembles, and much more, as they say.

Stephanie Susberich is a soprano and composer living in Somerville. She writes about music on her blog, www.sopranointhecity.com

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