At new music concerts, I will admit, I am an avid reader of program notes. Although I’ve had my debates with colleagues who insist that good music should prove its own merit, my constant hope is for an intellectual lifeline to keep me from drowning in what I fear, down in my insecure performer’s heart, may be an ocean of sophistication and nuance. And how else to prepare for what director Stephen Drury of NEC’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice gleefully refers to as an evening of “strange sounds”? Thus I was pleased when I sat down to Monday night’s SICPP kick-off concert with a tidy page of notes, but slightly wary when the page in question included references to Pablo Neruda, Kissinger, Masonic/Crowley mysticism, the many meanings and allusions of the word “still,” Sol LeWitt (who?), the evolution of a squiggle, clues to a possible question, and a title comprised of uncapitalized, archaic French and three dots. I feared that I might have to capitulate to the argument that composers, in their earnest attempts to communicate inspiration, too often alienate their audience with a barrage of esoteric minutiae.
However, the stellar performances given by Drury, Corey Hamm, and the Callithumpian Consort, combined with the clearly well-planned programming and inherent quality of the pieces themselves, left me feeling vindicated as a new music fan, musician, and thinker. Although the three pieces performed, two for solo piano and one for chamber orchestra, were markedly different in construction and often in character, the concert revealed a remarkable level of cohesiveness. The overall impression was of power, beauty, and sense.
Hamm began the concert with Frederic Rzewski’s Squares, which the title and notes appropriately point out as being a work of rigid construction through which shines the striking spirit of the music itself. Hamm’s technical elasticity was perfectly suited to the conveyance of such succinct, quirky material; whether pounding the ominous march of the “Hyenas” movement, striking individual notes with the crispness of a Bach invention, or sweeping the keys in jazzily amorphous gestures, he moved from one affect to another with purpose and drive. I found his command of rhythm to be most impressive; when rhythm finally returned to the forefront in the strident, recurring syncopations of the final movement (“sideshow”), it seemed as if the tautness of the entire work were suddenly summarized and magnified.
In contrast, Drury’s performance of John Zorn’s ... (fay ça que vouldras) was grandiose, rambling, and unapologetically spilling over any boundaries attempting to constrain it. The program notes invoked both fantasia and stream-of-consciousness, yet here too a sense prevailed of reigned-in energy. The piece opened with a burst of Drury’s unique kinetic ferocity, yet his abandon quickly subsided and remained below the surface for much of the piece, which contained a preponderance of haunting melodies. Like the Rzewski, the disparate aspects of the music still seemed organically connected, helped along by Drury’s fluidity of motion. As the (rather long) piece progressed, my mind did wander — appropriate, after all, to stream-of-consciousness. By the end, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was hearing quotations from piano literature past in all the interspersed melodic fragments. Or, as my seatmate suggested, were they only the shadows of quotations in our minds? (Though I could have sworn I heard the Minute Waltz.)
Members of the Callithumpian Consort took the stage for the final piece, Still Telling, a commission by the group from composer Tamar Diesendruck. The piece started in quiet stillness (or would have, had the Jordan Hall ushers been doing their job) and bloomed into a constantly shifting and complexly layered sound world. The piece was most striking in spatial organization and texture, to the extent that linear compositional structure was almost a moot point. The setup of an inner circle of strings, ringed by woodwind and brass, then percussion and piano, allowed for cascades of sound that were both audible and visible: the eye and ear could follow the path of sound through the piano, through strings from violin to basses, to woodwinds, growing more articulate until scattering into an array of percussive drops along the edge of the ensemble. The piece was skillfully orchestrated, the bass-heaviness of the string group (two basses, two celli, and one each of viola and violin) resulting in a dense, supple lattice of harmonics over which single melodic lines rose in opposition to the precision of the percussion. Of those melodic lines, standouts were Jessi Rosinski’s flute and John Russell’s trumpet, which formed startlingly beautiful doublings with the strings. Russell was also able to produce a muted sound uncannily (but wonderfully) resembling a blues singer.
If Monday evening was any indication, I hope that local music fans will avail themselves of the opportunity for another 5 nights of free top-shelf new music performances at SICPP.