The Callithumpian Consort, under the skillful direction of pianist and conductor Stephen Drury, presented a concert entitled, “Hot Butterknife Knight” to a young and packed audience in the Gardner Museum’s series, “Avant Gardner,” on Thursday, January 21. The concert title itself has no particular meaning that I could determine, but rather seems to be a handle to signify the collaboration of three young composers, Lei Liang, Adam Roberts, and Nicholas Vines, all of whom have recent Ph.D. degrees in composition from Harvard University. Indeed the second work on the program, “Triplex mobilis” (2009) was written by all three at the suggestion of Drury, and first performed on this occasion. The complex compositional process, clearly described in the program notes, resulted in a sectional work of six “scenes,” each with different instrumentation featuring percussion in all six. The ensemble comprised flute, trumpet, percussion (2), piano, harp, viola, and double bass. The immovable instruments (vibraphone, harp, and piano) stayed on stage while others sometimes moved around the hall, and either played from memory, or stood at music stands. Some sections depended on constant repetition of motives, and some were through-composed; some made good use of advanced instrumental techniques, which were well executed, especially by the flute; some were introspective, and some agreeably in your face. All together the work is most engaging, and deserves another hearing soon.
I’m sorry to say that due to traffic congestion coming IN to Boston, and long lines for other crowded events occurring simultaneously in the museum, I was able to hear only the last part of Lei Liang’s “Brush Stroke” (2005) for chamber orchestra, standing bent over into the hall outside the Tapestry Room. What I heard were very beautiful sounds, inspired, according to the program notes, by spectral analysis of sounds of the guqin (Chinese zither). The work was first performed at the New England Conservatory in 2005, and is recorded on Mode Records 210. The composer, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, was not present.
“Recoil,” by Boston composer Adam Roberts, works with the idea of stretching, and then bouncing back, with attenuated unisons and—as Roberts writes, “descending glissandos that explode into a rising staccato figure.” The work is sectional, in that he plays with one texture among one or more instruments for a while, and then moves on smoothly to another. The instruments comprised flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion (two), piano, harp, string quartet, and double bass. In his verbal introduction Roberts, who is Artistic Administrator for the Callithumpians, noted his gratitude for their flexible rehearsal situation that allowed him to try things out. Thus emerged the first performance of an energetic work I’d like to hear again.
More intentionally difficult was “Torrid Nature Scene” (2008), by the Australian composer Nicholas Vines, who now teaches at Harvard and M.I.T. Originally written for the Firebird Ensemble, the work, a depiction of the poem by fellow Australian composer Andrew Robbie, is for soprano, mezzo-soprano, flutes, horn, percussion, piano, harp, and string quartet. The poem extends to seven verses as a strict Petrarchan sonnet (abbaabba bccbcb), statically depicting random sensual acts of nature, “in awe the sweet grotesque.” Vines has concentrated on a musical depiction of the explosive sounds of the words rather than setting the text per se. He makes frequent use of vocalized sighs (often sounding like shrieks), and distortions of mouth shapes (thus the sounds they emit). The singers, Paula Downes and Thea Lobo, were comfortable and almost playful in their role. Their well matched voices were on occasion, however, pitted against fortissimo trombones—I hope this conveys the harshness of much of this music. On the other hand, in some passages I was reminded of sound-track music of the sort that is anticipating violence. It is a tough piece that left the audience sitting for a while instead of rushing to leave.