On Thursday, September 16th, the Callithumpian Consort performed a splendid array of minimalist and post-minimalist works on the “Avant Gardner” series of contemporary music that takes place during the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum’s “After Hours,” a monthly social event that seems to draw a massive crowd. These concerts are unfortunately limited to an hour, which can be rather limiting for programs of this kind. Nonetheless, the Callithumpians managed to select four pieces that were exemplary of some of the West Coast’s most celebrated composers, and also to concoct an engaging and heterogeneous program that largely focused on stasis and repetition.
Each of the four pieces was played in succession without pause. Instrumentalist changes were seamlessly executed during the overlap between pieces. And between the murmur of people downstairs and in other parts of the in the museum, the general atmosphere of the Gardner’s tapestry room, and the relaxed approach to the selected music, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the Downtown scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s (if it is possible to feel nostalgia for a scene that existed decades before I was born). John Luther Adams’s Songbirdsongs meditated on lush, quiet drones and various birdcalls mimicked by various instruments. Even with the compromises imposed this particularly quiet piece by the noise of the venue, the performance of the piece summoned an ethereal beauty, eliciting a setting of nature that only very few composers can persuasively and authentically produce.
The performance morphed into Lou Harrison’s early Suite for cello and harp, as haunting textured and birdcalls were replaced by soft, pulsing modalities and repetitive cello lines. The Suite is hardly representative of what we generally expect to hear from one of Harrison’s pieces: it uses neither alternative tuning systems nor traditional Javanese instruments. The simplicity and objectivity of the piece was immaculately captured by harpist Franzisca Huhn and cellist Benjamin Schwartz, as the cyclic piece contained itself within bookends of the poetic Chorale.
As the piece came to a close, instrumentalists from within the aisles stood, and all I could think was, Oh no, not another contrived adaptation of a piece with musicians standing around the audience. Despite what at first seemed a gimmick, the quintessence of James Tenney’s Swell Piece fit perfectly with the performance approach. The piece is notated only as directions to the performers to play any pitches they choose in slow swells. The surreal effect the surrounding performers had on this concept was nothing short of enrapturing, but the piece seemed to be over before it began.
Closing with the longest performance of the evening (though not nearly as long as many renditions) was the most compelling performance of Terry Riley’s In C I have yet to hear (including some widely circulated recordings by Bang on a Can and a number of other performances I’ve played in myself). The pacing of In C is the key, and it is what differentiates true, convincing performances from underwhelming, indiscriminate ‘jam sessions’ on the piece. Subtleties –such as how Philipp Stäudlin emerged and submerged the bright tone of the soprano sax into the texture, and how violinist Ethan Wood chose the absolute perfect time to highlight the harmonic motion of the piece (yes, there is indeed harmonic motion in In C) with an appropriate change from viola to mandolin–are what made this performance shine.
It is true that many ensembles in town will veer away from this music because it is not representative of New England’s general musical climate, or that the music is “too easy”. But this, I think, is a clear example of what happens to conceptually simple music when a serious performance rigor is applied: powerful music that is appealing, convincing, and (despite its extremism in musical economy) consistently absorbing.