There is an implicit dare and irreverence in the approach to contemporary music taken by New England Conservatory’s Callithumpian Consort. Director Stephen Drury exudes a cavalier flamboyance as he takes the stage to conduct his ensemble, which like Drury, is always uniformly dressed in blue jeans and white shirts. However, on most nights, as soon as the ensemble begins playing, their first-class artistry quickly overshadows their quirky, laid-back bravado. Callithumpian commands halls with a relaxed confidence, often smiling at each other before, during, and after performances, conveying the feeling that something unusual, something well worth hearing and seeing is about to happen, and on most nights, it does.
In its most recent performance at Brown Hall of New England Conservatory on December 3, the ensemble took on four pieces, two by deceased royalty of the American avant-garde, Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and two by living composers, Tamar Diesendruck and Michele Zaccagnini, who were both in attendance.
The night began with Feldman’s The Viola in My Life (I), the first of four pieces Feldman wrote from 1970-1971 for the slightly awkward middle child of the string family. Callithumpian’s authoritative capacity to control and captivate was compromised, but not because of a flaw in execution. Regrettably, the bleed-through and reverberations of a performance in a nearby practice hall were almost as loud as the Feldman piece, resulting in an aural experience that was interesting on some level, if not the one intended.
Like much of Feldman’s music from this era, The Viola in My Life (I) is a taut network of hesitant, whispered utterances and fragments peeking through a delicate blanket of near-silence. As one might gather, the muted cacophony from the neighboring hall was, to say the least, distracting. That said, the ensemble nobly proceeded as if in a silent hall, and solo violist Sarah Darling’s performance was focused, nuanced and arresting. With any justice, Callithumpian will reprise this gem under better conditions in the near future.
Next on the program was Second, a short, single movement for solo piano composed by Italian-born Michele Zaccagnini and performed by Yukiko Takagi. Zaccagnini’s sound grammar was a stark contrast to the fragile murmuring of Feldman. From the very outset, Second unleashed a torrent of spiky, dynamic exuberance, reminiscent of American post-serialism from the 1970s and 1980s, but with a refined gusto all its own. Part of the allure of this piece is its ability to conjure a primal vigor within a fastidiously sculpted formal scheme. Takagi’s formidable, yet deceptively casual, virtuosity helped transfer some of the attention away from Second’s extraordinary technical demands, extracting and highlighting the piece’s thoughtful, refined voice leading.
Earle Brown’s Novara proved to be the highlight of the evening. Like much of his “open form” music, the compositional and interpretative mechanisms of this work were on full display, elevating devices, which in most pieces are hidden seams and inner mechanics, to items of equivalent interest to the music itself. Brown’s score calls for the use of a homemade pointer, which was prominently visible on the conductor’s stand for both the ensemble and the audience. Using the pointer and hand gestures, the conductor carves out a unique form in real-time, cueing layers of music by using his left hand to indicate dynamics, tempi and which music on any given page should be played by which performers.
Beyond its novelty, this spectacle is extraordinary because the performer is placed in an anticipatory role. In a piece with concrete form, the audience’s expectations are often a key element, which the composer can manipulate to gratify, defy, or accomplish something in between. In Brown’s music, the performer is in a similarly anticipatory role, and must remain ready to play, stop or adjust at all times, with little prior notice. This interaction provides a captivating extra-musical narrative, as the audience witnesses the unfolding of a relationship between score, conductor and ensemble, while the form of the music is conceived, manipulated, and revealed simultaneously. The conductor must also become a co-composer, even more responsible for the music’s shape and fulfillment than usual.
In all categories, this performance was a success, as the ready-for-anything Callithumpian players were gleefully up to the challenge. Throughout the piece, savage stabs of dissonance were employed deftly by Drury to cut through softly sustained static harmonies. Eventually, a nostalgic piano refrain, which began the piece, was tastefully revisited by pianist Elaine Rombola, fostering a satisfying completeness. By the end of this adventure, it seemed there was a smile on every face in the hall, from house to stage.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to a new Callithumpian commission, with the support of the Fromm Foundation. The twenty minute, single movement piece, Still Telling, by Tamar Diesendruck, required the ensemble to swell to fifteen players, and was formulated as a series of contrasting tableaux, each with a distinct rhythmic and timbral identity. According to Diesendruck, each of these block sections was extrapolated from a slow melody that occurs in the piano midway through the piece.
The character of the divergent sections oscillated between spirited, playful, buoyancy and darker, sustained areas of repose. The multiple active, and more introspective areas, were all characterized by an appealing exoticism, accomplished through skillful employment of a full spectrum of timbres, and lush harmonies with microtonal inflections. For this listener though, the wide, and sometimes abrupt variation in surface and mood occasionally seemed to verge on incongruity, and the piece’s length made it easy to get lost in the form. Despite this, Still Telling provided a vibrant, expressive journey through its disparate aural set pieces.