in: Reviews

February 14, 2011

Good but Not Really Folk to Funk: Juventas

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“Read Our Lips: Juventas Jam’s New Music Drawing on Influences from Folk to Funk,” at Ryle’s Jazz Club in Cambridge, on Sunday February 13, really gave modern music a good chance.

I would like to open with an anecdote. My paternal grandfather used to be a milkman. He was Jewish, but not at all observant. One day during Passover, he went to deliver milk to an observant Jewish woman. She took one look at the bottle and exclaimed that she couldn’t drink it because it was not Kosher for Passover. Apologizing, my grandfather told her that he brought her the wrong bottle and was going out to his truck to retrieve the correct one. Upon getting back to the truck, my grandfather took the same bottle, slapped a Kosher for Passover sticker on it, and brought it back to her. The woman, none the wiser, thanked him gratefully; the bottle of milk was Kosher for Passover just because he said it was.

While this may seem like an illogical tangent for a concert review, I told this story to my friend who was with me at the Read Our Lips: Juventas Jam. We came by this discussion after the concert. I don’t want to get into a fancy philosophical discussion about the crisis of modern music (although it is a problem), but I do want to mention that titles and composer descriptions do set some expectations. For example, two pieces that stuck out at me for this very reason were Tango For Quintet (2009), composed by Noam Feingold and Afghan Blues (2009), composed by Ian Dicke. Both pieces, according to both the title and program notes by the composers, mentioned that they were influenced by those respective genres. Save for about a two-minute span in Afghan Blues, none of these influenced genres seemed to be present. Going back to my anecdote, these composers set audience expectations, so were the pieces tango and blues just because they said they were? Before I get off the soapbox, I do want to mention that the venue was practically empty, and it may be that most people went to the same concert the previous evening at The Boston Conservatory, but I do think that in some ways, aside from the harshness of modern music to most ears, the expectations set up by titles and program notes often let the average listener down (the friend who was with me remarked during intermission, “I thought this was supposed to be jazz fusion or something.”). I should also mention that most tables, all six that held patrons, were filled with conversation rather than actual listening.

Now that I’ve put in my two cents, off to the task at hand: the review. It was a relatively short concert of about an hour including intermission and the five pieces. The concert was performed by five of the six core Juventas musicians (Zachary Jay, flute; Brian Calhoon, percussion; Julia Scott Carey, piano, Sara Matayoshi, violin; Ashleigh Gordon, viola) as well as two guest musicians (Kiera Thompson, clarinet and Jennifer Bewerse, cello). As a young musician myself, I am always still awestruck at the talents of those conservatory students who play in such ensembles as Juventas; after all, playing modern music is no easy task. The first piece, Tango for Quintet, was scored for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello. As I mentioned above, did not seem like a tango, but nonetheless, the textures of the piece fit together nicely. The World Premiere of Keane Southard’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, was a lyrical piece that seemed noncommittal to tonality or atonality. I am always amazed at musical interactions such as that between Julia Scott Carey and Sara Matayoshi, who appeared to read each other’s minds. The next piece, Get Rich Quick by Ian Dicke, was an electro-acoustic piece for piano and tape, splicing all of those “Get out of debt” ads we frequently hear on the radio, as well as recordings of music boxes. Carey demonstrated excellent technique, and the piece almost could have been a great demonstration of virtuosic music without the recorded sounds, but yet somehow the piano still seemed to need it. As I mentioned above, Afghan Blues, for which, the composer states in his program notes, he directly uses the blues genre, uses it very sparingly to the point where it seems inaudible. It could be that the textures between the five instruments (flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello) masked it, but picking out the individual musical gestures among the instruments was admittedly difficult. The musicians all managed to stay on point on each of their individual parts among the winding textures. The final piece on the program, Compass, composed by Baljinder Singh Sekhon II, was an aleatoric piece for percussion and viola of eight sections to be played without pause in any order. The piece was very percussion based, right down to the use of the viola as a percussion instrument (banging on the body and pizzicato). The technique and performance of the two musicians, Ashleigh Gordon and Brian Calhoon, was brilliant. The choice of placement of the eight segments was excellent, as there did not seem to be any discontinuity between the sections in the order in which they were played.

So maybe I will get back on my soapbox for just a minute: I think more people need to give modern music a chance. Groups such as Juventas only survive by donations and support. Without talented groups like this one that are dedicated to the performance and preservation of modern music, we not only deprive young musicians of the chance to play this music, but composers to write it, and ultimately people to listen to it and even discover it. Next time Juventas performs, I highly suggest that you attend this talented group’s performance; its good not just because I say it is.

Reba Wissner is in the Doctoral Program in Musicology at Brandeis University.

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