in: Reviews

April 3, 2011

A Relatively Quiet Shivaree at NEC

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The [nec]shivaree is New England Conservatory’s “attack wing” for new music, “performing the modern, the new, and the avant garde.” “Shivaree,” or “Charivari,” refers to noisy music made by revelers using “para-musical” instruments at homes of newlyweds at night, going back at least to the time of the Roman de Fauvel in 1315. The custom has been known by this term in America for over 200, years particularly in New Orleans. (In 2005, American Music published a definitive article about the music by Mark McKnight.) Under the direction of Stephen Drury, the students presented a well-chosen program on Wednesday, March 30, in NEC’s Brown Hall.

John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, written over fifty years ago, was extremely quiet. Cage began writing it in Paris in 1949, during the early years of his deep involvement in Asian aesthetics, and finished it in New York City in 1950; it was first premiered at Black Mountain College that summer by a quartet that included former NEC faculty member, violinist Robert Brink. On this occasion we heard violinists Ryan Shannon and Joinatsuru Yanai, violist Kevin Hsu, and cellist Hyoungimi Lee. Their performance, after a bit of raucous tuning, was appropriately gentle, for a piece whose dynamics range from pianissimo to piano. It was without vibrato, and absolutely together, without being square from having to count. There was lots of eye contact, and they fed each other lines beautifully, especially in the third movement, “Nearly Stationary (Winter),” which was just that; thus it was all the more difficult to attract and hold interest, but they did it. The first movement, “Quickly Flowing Along (Summer)” yielded quietly rich dissonances. The second, “Slowly Rocking (Autumn)” established a gentle tic-toc motion, and then slowed it down further. The fourth was the noisiest (by comparison), “Quodlibet (Spring).”

Michael Pisaro (b. 1961) is co-chair of the Composition Program at the California Institute of the Arts. His A Single Charm is Doubtful (2004-2006), was originally written for four unspecified “sustaining instruments.” (The title comes from a line in the first group of poems (“Objects”) in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.) The realization on this occasion (in order of Players 1-4) was for electronics (Neal Markowski), violin (Lauren Nelson), tuba (Beth McDonald), and marimba (David Tarantino) — the marimba “sustaining” by beating rapidly and softly on the same key. The thirteen-minute piece comprises a series of very soft, single notes, changing slowly, even microtonally, according to the composer’s pattern which may be seen here (p. 4). The piece was performed in the dark except for stand lights, which were bright. The tuba part is fiendishly difficult, requiring McDonald to attack very low notes very softly, and also do some circular breathing to extend them. She was extraordinarily successful in this, with nary a crack or a burble.

In 1987, three years before he died, Luigi Nono wrote Post-prae-ludium per Donau, for valve tuba in F and electronics, first performed at the Donaueschingen Festival that year. Although some aleatory techniques are used, the score uses non-traditional notation expressed in proportional real time, and performance directions are quite specific. Yet they set up a drama of seemingly random sounds from four surrounding speakers, generated by the quiet, initially hesitant tuba, using delay and reverberation. There are also four non-traditional playing techniques, which by now have become more common: half-valve playing, singing within the instruments, playing with vibrato, and multiphonics. Once again, McDonald showed that she is the master (mistress?) of her instrument, which is a lot more versatile than most concert-goers realize. John Mallia was the assured and sensitive controller of the electronics. The performance was stunning.

At intermission, most of the very small audience of twenty or thirty, mostly students, left. (Conservatory students are notoriously over-scheduled.) Too bad, because they missed a riveting performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings conducted by Stephen Drury. The bassoon was played by Luke Olaf Varland, and the strings were four cellos, Drew Comstock, Daniel Lim, Katie Youn, and Daniel Parker, and three contrabasses, Luke Sutherland, Kathryn Schulmeister, and Kate Foss. Again, this is not an “avant garde” piece of our time: Gubaidulina wrote it in 1975 during the Soviet period when she was earning her living as a film composer, but privately building a close circle of performer-friends with whom she could share experiments in improvisation and acoustics. The first publication by Ricordi that year was for bassoon and low string orchestra with four and three desks, respectively, but the version for solo strings has been issued by various publishers since 1979, presumably with her approval.

The bassoon soloist must have amazing abilities to perform in so many different experimental modes over the full range of the instrument, and Varland rose to the occasion brilliantly, having us on the edge of our seats for all of the thirty minutes. The piece is in five movements (unnamed), which have different characters as the composer explores blue notes, multiphonics, what seems like flutter-tonguing, and even jazz, against a background of strings also exploring various extended ranges and techniques, but with more gentle sounds and extended phrases. The bassoonist “sits out” during the middle movement, while the strings develop their interplay to the fullest.

Gubaidulina has written: “Dmitri Shostakovich and Anton Webern had the greatest influence on my work. Although their influence appears to have left no traces in my music, these two composers taught me the most important lesson of all: to be myself.”  And for that we are grateful.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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