Boston Musica Viva, our own internationally-renowned contemporary music ensemble, offered an effective mix of older and newer “new” music, including two world premieres on Friday evening, Nov. 12, at Tsai Performance Center, Boston University. The ensemble’s founding director, Richard Pittman, served as musical director and emcee, presenting informative introductions to the works in a manner which invited engagement from the musical specialist as well as the general audience member.
The ensemble consisted primarily of local faces (the New England Conservatory was well represented) as well as a few “friends of the ensemble” from outside of the area. The performers executed their parts with precision and passion, a strong presence on the stage. Mezzo-soprano Krista River joined the ensemble for the concert’s closing selection; her performance was graceful and powerful, serving effectively as soloist and as part of the ensemble.
First on the program was Donald Harris’s Five Tempi, a work which features many of the popular compositional trends of the twentieth century. Harris’s organization of the work’s five sections into mathematically-related tempos, for example, appears to pay homage to the composers of the Second Viennese School, many of whom used such precise ratios in their compositional constructions. (Harris recently co-edited a publication of correspondences between Berg and Schoenberg). The work opens with angular, elemental statements of virtuosic “snippets,” overlapping one another in seemingly irregular patterns. These juxtaposed musical sound bytes, which sound as if they could come from any of the great concertos of the nineteenth century, slowly coalesce throughout the work’s first three sections, finally merging in the fourth section for a full statement of the chorale melody. Again, this “elemental” approach appears to be modeled after the early-twentieth-century style, creating convergence from the in-gathering of disparate musical elements.
Bernard Hoffer, known in popular circles for his musical contribution to the popular Saturday morning cartoon show Thundercats, was in attendance for the world premiere of his Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano: “Cosmic.” As the work’s subtitle implies, it is a musical depiction of the “cosmic” concepts set forth in physicist Brian Green’s recent book, Elegant Universe. The composer effectively depicts these other-worldly concepts while keeping his feet firmly in the musical “terra firma.” The opening movement features long, linear motion to depict “vibrating loops” that are slowly dismembered and pulled down into the “black hole” of the second movement. Hoffer’s depiction of “Order/Random” features a witty, random-sounding musical hocket (reminiscent of chamber music from the Paris Conservatoire during the first half of the twentieth century), which occasionally converges into order. The closing movement features an “endless” expansion of the linear “ring” motions from the opening movement, as the music moves into “Infinity.”
Youth was represented on the program by the world premiere of Chris Arrell’s Convergence. The composer introduced his piece, speaking of the intersection of process and systematic change, using the seasonal imagery of leaves falling off the trees at different times but all coming to the same end result; all of his themes pointed to the concept of local variation converging upon unified outcome. In a manner that has remained popular among younger composers of this and earlier generations, Arrell’s piece opens with a static texture over which violent musical outbursts ring out; as described by the composer, these seemingly random outbursts later prove to be the basic musical elements which unify the entire work. The composer also uses instrumental groups from within the ensemble in opposition to one another, though in keeping with the work’s title and overall concept, these groups occasionally converge for brief moments of musical cohesion.
Ellen Zwillich’s Passages featured a musical setting of six of A.R. Ammons’s poems on the theme of the passage of life. Musica Viva holds a special place in Zwillich’s career, as it was one of the earliest groups to commission the composer, long before she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition. Zwillich’s song cycle is particularly effective in moving deftly between the depiction of life’s dynamic and reflective moments, creating a strong, though subtle representation of both states. The composer effectively utilizes a unique palate of musical timbres, including her use of “instrument families” (e.g. alto and soprano flute, bass and alto clarinet), as well as non-Western instruments such as the Japanese brass gong. The final two selections are particularly powerful, as the slow-moving dreamscape of the “Self-portrait” moves to moments of peaceful musical stasis, preparing for the cycle’s closing statement, “This is the world we have: take it.”