in: Reviews

January 29, 2009

Six Berklee Composers, One from Tufts, Offer Sensuous Tango, Sinuous Glissandi, Caressing Sounds


The audience was small but satisfied at this comfortable event, “Crosscurrents: New Directions in Classical Music: A Concert of New Classical Compositions by the Composition Faculty of Berklee College of Music,” held at the Brighton-Allston Congregational Church in Brighton Center on January 25. Admission was by contribution, for the benefit of the Community Supper kitchen.

It’s interesting that “classical” was twice emphasized in the long headline on the program; perhaps the emphasis was necessary because the Berklee College of Music is widely known as an institution for jazz and popular music, despite its long-standing commitment to so-called “serious” art. But the serious message of these composers was unmistakable, no less than the careful craft behind each work. Six Berklee faculty were featured, and one guest composer, John McDonald of Tufts University. The entire afternoon was fine testimony to composers’ imagination and excellent performance, more evidence, if any were needed, of the rich variety of Boston concert life in the service of new music.

A Finnish-American composer, Kari Juusela, played the cello in his own Talvi Rukous ja Aurinko Matka (Winter Prayer and Sun Journey), for violin (Helen Sherrah-Davies), cello, contrabass (Bruno Raberg), piano (Tom Hojnacki), and percussion (Jerry Leake). The piece itself was a blend of sweet blues and walking bass with elegant D-Major harmony, answered from time to time with minimalist improvisation and a steady percussion beat; there was obvious warmth in this wintry journey, and the audience knew the sun was still shining when it ended.

Three Dance Stories for piano by Ivana Lisak followed, elegantly played by Irina Bazik. The performance was good but the piano needs some major work; this was a church, after all, not a concert hall. One heard echoes of Scriabin in the mostly atonal harmony, but the freely-moving, delicate melodic line was what commanded attention.

Ramon Castillo, composer of Spaghettification, wrote about his work: “Spaghettification is what happens to an individual sucked into a black hole.” This piece, for two violins, viola, and percussion, rates as probably the most avant-garde offering of the afternoon. The first section was slow chordal writing in C Major for the strings, rather like a Schubert part-song; it was followed by a faster section in C minor, with a koto-like scale and no chromatic tones whatever, and a brief coda like the first section; all of this was accompanied by seemingly disconnected percussion with steady jazz beat alternating with isolated single gestures, bass drum, woodblock, snare drum, and flexatone. I enjoyed the whimsy of this piece but searched in vain for a black hole. The players were Bob Anemone and Jean Huang, violins, Celia Hatton, viola, and Steve Merrill, percussion.

John McDonald offered two recent short pieces of his own: Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province, “five verses containing five phrases each,” pointillistic and sometimes harsh; and Morning Practice from the School of Appling, in memory of the composer’s early teacher and mentor William Appling. McDonald called this a “distant, tender slow drag,” but the caressing sounds of parallel sixths in the right hand were the most obvious clue to the ragtime connection. McDonald remained at the piano for two short pieces by Francine Trester, A Brief Observation and Briefly Observed, pieces very different in character despite the similar titles. The first of these, beginning with a fast 12/8 pattern, included a clever dialogue of major and minor triads with some orientalist filigree; the second piece, clinging much of the time to upper registers, brought together short melodic bursts with a finely-shaped, almost sentimental tonal harmony.

Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Whitman’s War, two poems of Walt Whitman, was the longest and most ambitious work on the program.  “Beat! Beat! Drums!” alternated a snare-drum tattoo with a slow dirge beat in bell-like chords and abundant whole-tone harmony, accompanying an expressive vocal line that effectively conveyed the anguish of battle. “Dirge for Two Veterans” followed immediately after a piano interlude; this was at once slower, more solemn, more spare in texture, and brighter in sound. The able performers were Sarah Long Holland, soprano, and Sarah Bob, piano.

Andrew List’s Love Dances for cello and contrabass were ideally performed by Emmanuel Feldman and Pascale Delache-Feldman, who happen to be married. The “Seductive Tango” was certainly sexy enough, with high-positioned, expressive double-stops in both instruments, and some sinuous glissandi. “Wild Dance” was appropriately wild, with snapped strings à la Bartók and intense, rapid bowing, but it was almost too short. The “Love Aria” was clearly the expressive high point of the work, with well-wrought melodic lines in warm two-part counterpoint, and very lovable indeed.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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