in: Reviews

February 6, 2009

Brave New World Offers Admirable Diversity, Inventiveness

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Contemporary music ensembles that base their season programming on open call-for-scores often fall into a common trap: their concerts reflect the preferences of their adjudicators rather than the larger stylistic diversity of living composers. This tendency, which unfortunately seems to have become an acceptable norm, is effectively evaded by Brave New Works. On their concert at Boston Conservatory on February 6, BNW featured not only a collection of works by composers from all over the world, but across genres, styles, and influences.

Sunji Hong’s Shades of Raindrops opened the program with an intricate expanse of colors and timbres. The entire piece builds out of a single note in octaves, twisting and turning around the center-pitch in striking, fractal-like melodies. Hong’s piece exposed an abundance of compositional intuition, with instrumental virtuosity to showcase the tremendous abilities of the ensemble. Forest Pierce’s The Black Sword of Sappho followed, featuring several miniatures for harp and soprano. Each movement was a concept of its own, varying significantly from the other movements. The element that remained constant throughout the miniatures was incredibly versatile use of the harp with wildly demanding writing for the voice.

Mason Bates’s String Band was easily the unique piece of the evening. The piece quickly introduced a driving rhythmic motor in unambiguous reference to old-time string-band and early bluegrass music. Percussive noises from pencil erasers and screws placed inside the piano added to the momentum, while nicely blending into the texture. The music later breaks down into more static sounds, as the influence of electronic music on the composer becomes more and more audible. The journey to this moment in the music was what really made the piece interesting, but after this new sound environment was reached, the piece hit somewhat of a dead-end meandering around timbres and colors long after they were eliciting any interest.

Andy Vores’s Objects and Intervals concluded the concert. The work featured Soprano Jennifer Goltz with the entire Brave New Works ensemble. The piece offered some interesting interactions between multiple texts but did little to sustain any tension within the music itself. The piece relied heavily on references, often comical (but rarely clever), to well-known classical icons: Beethoven’s fifth, Mozart’s Magic Flute. This type of classical-collage is by no means a new idea, and did little for the piece beyond distracting the listening from the inventiveness (which Vores on other occasions has most definitely proven himself to be) of the composer. More troubling is that this type of approach seems to support the common “there’s-nothing-new-to-hear” notion, and that we might as well enjoy some mix-mashing of the great masters instead of pushing contemporary music forward.

While I doubt that the composer intended this negative response, it was outbalanced by the diversity and inventiveness of the program as a whole. The dedication of BNW to the performance of a wide array of contemporary styles places them at the top of new music organizations in the U.S.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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