The last weekend in January brought the 20th Annual Festival of Contemporary Music at the New England Conservatory, and this year’s guest composer was an old friend of Boston, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music in the United Kingdom and at 75 the most illustrious living British composer. I can only report on some Saturday afternoon events, and regret that I wasn’t able to come to the big schedule on Sunday, but what I saw and heard is strong evidence that good music for and by young people is going strong at NEC. Most Saturdays at NEC are likely a madhouse of bustling kids, teachers, and groups; there are, I was told, some 1,400 students of elementary through high-school age in NEC’s preparatory programs. Brown Hall, in the basement adjacent to Jordan Hall, was host to the first program, and it was filled to overflowing, with every chair occupied and 100 students and parents in standing-room-only.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies spoke first to the 8 O’clock String Training Orchestra, which played his Six Sanday Tunes directed by Peter Jarvis. These are easy folksong arrangements in simple keys and moderate registers, and it was a pleasure to hear them played with such obvious enthusiasm and in good tune, by players who in many cases aren’t even 10 years old. Some decades ago, Max (as all his friends call Sir Peter) spent several years directing music for young people at the Cirencester Grammar School, and he is as well experienced in meeting the needs of gifted beginners as of the best professionals in Europe. The same genial expertise and elegance was evident in the four short pieces that followed called Start Point, played by the Junior Repertory Orchestra conducted by Adam Grossman. The well-disciplined and enthusiastic NEC Children’s Chorus, directed by Jamie Kirsch, then sang five Songs of Hoy, named for the island off the west coast of Scotland where Maxwell Davies lives. Two of the songs included charming animal dances by costumed children from the Eurythmics class, ably arranged and directed by Ginny Latts.
The program continued with one movement of a symphony-in-progress by Jeremiah Klarman, 17 years old, who studies at NEC and Gann Academy; his music has already been performed by half a dozen local orchestras as well as chamber and choral groups. As performed by the NEC Youth Symphony, the fourth movement of his Symphony no. 1 in C minor shows a lot of skill and imagination, and a good feeling for orchestral sound, and one wanted to hear more of this promising piece. Steven Karidoyanes conducted what was a second performance; the premiere had been heard last November. The well-wrought orchestral texture of this inspired piece was a good testimony to what NEC can do to nurture growing talent, and it was also a tribute to Klarman’s teacher, Rodney Lister, one of the prime movers and tireless organizers behind the entire busy two-day festival.
Last on the program was Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, already familiar to many of us in Boston: it was commissioned by the Boston Pops Orchestra and premiered in Symphony Hall in 1985. The Youth Symphony did this piece proud, with all of its tipsy programmatic detail and improvised but well-controlled gestures; the bagpipe that appeared at the end was probably not a regular member of the orchestra, but he was well received. The composer was obviously pleased.
Max hardly had time to grab a bite of lunch before he went to an adjacent building to supervise a master class that included one of his theater songs, a Lullaby for violin and cello (written, he said, in half an hour as a birthday offering), and a larger work, a cello sonata, to be performed the next day. I wasn’t able to hear all of this but what especially struck me was the seriousness and commitment of advanced students to complex and unfamiliar new music.
At 3 o’clock, in the Keller Room in Jordan Hall, the Piano Seminar Classes, coordinated by Angel Ramón Rivera, brought together an accomplished assortment of intermediate pianists. Ten younger players were featured in some easier pieces by Maxwell Davies, including Stevie’s Ferry to Hoy, Snow Cloud Over Lochan, Six Secret Songs, Farewell to Stromness (a political piece), and Yasnaby Ground. Later we heard Five Little Pieces, which represent Maxwell Davies in a pointillistic atonal idiom, with brief and sometimes explosive gestures; they were expressively played by Chi Wei Lo. Also on the program, with many participants, were 10 selections from The Wall Calendar, op. 84, by Vladimir Ryabov, and three premieres: a well-named Restless Sleep by Katherina Balch (Eric Lu, pianist), Pastel Sketch, op. 191, by Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee, and Contempo: 10 Contemporary Duets, op. 94, by Larry Thomas Bell. Only nine of the ten were played, but the team of 18 young pianists had a good time coping with such amusements as “Angry Tango,” “Wistful Waltz,” and my own favorite, “Southern Serenade.” Larry Bell privately confessed to me his admiration, in these amiable pieces, for Broadway musicals of the 1950s. Dianne Rahbee’s short piece shows an increasingly chromatic direction in her work; it was well played by Yoo Min Lee.
I was unable to hear the composition master class that Maxwell Davies held during the morning with 11 students (one of them just 10 years old), nor could I remain for the Improvisation and Composition Recital during the late afternoon (12 improvisers; eight composers). I couldn’t attend the festival on Sunday but I would have given much to hear all of the events, which included concerts at 10, 1, 2:30, and 4, all in Brown Hall, with no less than 17 works by the guest of honor, plus ensembles and chamber pieces by two dozen young composers. I hope I will hear all of them next year. It is a great reassurance to have such abundant and affirmative evidence of the survival of serious music among our youngest generations.