in: Reviews

April 21, 2011

Some of the New Gets Old Fast

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Maybe one piece on Callithumpian Consort’s Enchanted Circle presentation on Wednesday, April 20, still piques at least a modicum of  curiosity. What’s going on in Giacinto Scelsi’s Okanagon, why this? Some kind of beasty creature thumped its way through the darkness at New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall for ten minutes. Amplified harp, double bass, and tam-tam spun off equally dark beats both time- and space-wise. The piece dates from the late ’60s when experimentalism was still wild and wooly even while showing signs of waning. Franziska Huhn, David Goodchild, and Nick Tolle were the apt performers behind the curtain.

By his shunning information about the music and its makers in the concert’s printed program, Callithumpian’s music founder, pianist, and conductor Stephen Drury left some of us in the dark. To the good! That left me feeling somewhat unfettered from preconceived notions about what I would be hearing. I had heard Okanagon of Scelsi (1905-1988) before this performance. It remains for me a curious object, its basic thrust being kind of like an oom-pah you’d hear in a swing pianist’s left hand, but slow and heavy, like being lowered into a deep hole, its three instruments appearing as mere shadows of themselves. I have since come to learn that the Italian composer also wrote surrealist poetry in French and waited a long time before his music of microtones would become appreciated by followers of the unconventional.

That was the concert opener.

What came next was Norio Fukushi’s Silica (1977). Still unsure of the Scelsi title, I am venturing a guess that Fukushi may have been thinking of “abundance” as in “crystalline compound.” What I heard was something like that: spates of rapid pulsations flashing high on the keyboard and arresting hard-mallet striking from the vibraphone. Yukiko Takagi and Nick Tolle controlled this; it would be the most controlled — and clearly shaped — composition of all five on the program. Takagi and Tolle brought their young, precocious interpreter’s art to bear as well in the only suggestion of lightness experienced the whole evening, in their handling of delicately isolated sounds of Silica’s closing moments.

It was a dark, existentialistic night, even with lights re-illuminating the hall. The three other works, recent ones, shared a common language (to use the term in its broadest sense). At a glance, their titles are suggestive of early-twentieth-century paintings, say of O’Keefe, Dali, and Duchamp. Varying shades of grey not infrequently verging on black, though, infused the three compositions, addressing autumn’s voices, transience of memory, and casual nudity.

A commission from the Callithumpian Consort, Autumn Voices by Mischa Salkind-Pearl for nine players, manipulated sustained sounds, chromatic ostinatos and riffs, crafted heterophonies and breakthrough blasts that were often dominated by the three mallet instruments and piano. Sparks flew early on. But the piece tried to go too far. This was more noticeable given Drury’s programming of such similar styles. While listeners could compare the personalities sharing a common language, they also were made all the more aware of the sameness of compositional techniques and period expression of searching and not finding.

A new work, On the Transience of Memory, by Christopher Wendell Jones, received it premiere. Michael Finnissy’s Casual Nudity should put some clothes on; it was embarrassing to watch five talented musicians, dedicated as they are, having to sit on the floor, without their instruments,  rub legs, roll fingers, and pull a plunger off the ground—thump!

Hearty applause and gratitude go to Drury and his other devotees of new music — too often few and far in between — who were not mentioned above and who fully deserve praise:  John Andress, percussion; Yukiko Takagi, Elaine “asap” Rombola, piano; Jessi Rosinski, flute; Alexis Lanz, clarinet; Gabriela Diaz and Diamanda Dramm, violins; Karin Fox, viola; Jennifer Bewerse, cello; Martin Stragier, guitar.

Advertised, but not on the program, was Tristan Murail’s Le Lac. He and pianist Ursula Oppens are Composer in Residence and Special Guest Artist for Drury’s Summer Institute of Contemporary Performance Practice June 20-25 at NEC.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

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