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Running Start, Surprising Moments in New Works


The Boston New Music Initiative opened its third season on Saturday, October 1 at the Fenway Center at Northeastern University with a collection of works that showcased both the quality of its performers as well as the accomplishments of its composers. Ian Dicke’s Assembly Lines, which was originally composed to go along with archival factory footage, gave this opening night concert a running start with its driven rhythms. Although this large ensemble work had an abundance of predictably ascending lines, its motivic material was enlivened by delightful orchestrations that often made reference to the sounds of 1920s jazz and popular music.

Kirsten Volness’s Sleeping in the Forest displayed an equally astute use of the ensemble. The piece began with an intriguing buildup of a mysterious timbre and harmony but then gave into to a lyrical and slightly sentimental violin melody with bass clarinet countermelody. Although I would have preferred that Volness had foregrounded the mysterious aspects of the piece, there was no denying that violinist Lilit Hartunian delivered her lyrical melody with a captivating and luxurious tone.

Two works combined acoustic instruments with live electronics. The first was Kyong Mee Choi’s Sublimation for marimba and electronics. The electronic portion consisted of well-processed sharp and resonant percussion sounds that later gave way to more subtle metallic timbres. In the beginning of the piece, the marimba lines are all instigated by the jarring attacks of the electronic part, while in the second section, the two elements are in something of a disconnected counterpoint. Percussionist Jeff Stern performed with precision and an impressive attention to timbral detail; nevertheless, the piece did not offer an equally satisfying sense of cohesion.

Metamorphoses, by Clifton Callender, presented another combination of acoustic and electronic sounds. This time, a cello was subjected to various levels of delay to create a sort of canon that repeatedly built into a wash of sound. This electronic treatment has been a staple of the minimalist aesthetic for quite some time, and I was hoping that this piece would add to the tradition rather than simply re-iterating it.

Garrett Byrnes Villanelle concluded the first half of the concert with a return to a more linear aesthetic in which melody takes the foreground. After a nice introduction in which Byrne opened up the registral and harmonic space, the violin led the way with a lyrical line backed by harp accompaniment that acknowledged the villanelle form’s Medieval roots. As the piece progressed, Byrne also made allusions to Eastern European folk music, which provided some engaging moments of sparse timbre and off-kilter harmonic rhythm. Overall, the lyrical elements dominated the piece, which resulted in a wonderfully pretty musical experience, but one without much surprise.

The second half of opening night offered two more substantial works, beginning with Michael Gandolfi’s As Above, another work that was also originally composed for presentation with video footage. Gandolfi has a talent for layering apparently simple, rhythmic motives in such as way as to continually delight the listener with clever timbres and re-combinations of the material. As Above did not disappoint, and provided the audience with a satisfying sense of direction, and some surprising moments, as when a peeling away of layers revealed a jazz rhythm in the latter half of the piece.

The Boston New Music Initiative closed the concert with Chris Arrell’s Argot, a piece for large chamber ensemble and soprano using as its text two abstract poems by e e cummings. As the evening’s most modernist piece, Argot took the lead of the poetry and invested itself in the timbral aspects of its non-tonal harmonies and unconventional orchestrations. Each sonority, built upon phonemes loving rendered by soprano Kimberly Soby, were milked for all their beauty and fascination, even during the sections with sparse and agitated orchestration.

In their opening night, The Boston New Music Initiative demonstrated a commitment to new music firmly rooted in both classical and contemporary traditions. While the audience may come to the Boston New Music Initiative’s season with little familiarity with the featured composers, they will certainly leave each performance with reasons to be enthusiastic about new music.

Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series.

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