Under the program title “Crossings,” nine musicians of Boston Musica Viva presented four works of contemporary classical music for small ensemble on Friday, November 18, at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center. The program showcased the precision and coherence of the musicians as well as their devotion to new music. The concert began with the Boston premiere of John Elmquist’s Junk Shot (2011), which the composer describes as his reaction in music to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I admit I approached this work with trepidation on account of this programmatic narrative; I must also admit I enjoyed the music of Junk Shot more than I expected. The piece is scored for piano (including muting strings with a hand inside the body of the instrument at certain points), flute and piccolo, clarinet and bass clarinet, cello, and percussion. At only two moments does the music have an obvious connection with the programmatic narrative; otherwise, the Macondo blowout serves as pretext to the composition – almost a regrettable plea for relevance. The first movement, ‘Orizon, begins with driving rhythms of machinery, but the combination of bass clarinet and cello to create a submerged sound associated with “underwater” (why? film scores, perhaps?) is the first connection between music and program. The second movement, Decessional, begins attaca and combines rising pitches, metrical modulations, and emphasized off-beats with the musical core of this composition: the overlapping of E-flat and A-major harmonies. The third movement, On My Shoe, recalls the pulsing hums of electronics and contains a lively, dancing tune which disintegrates before the attaca start of the fifth movement, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, a percussive and muted one which alludes only briefly to the titular song. The work ends with breathy blowing, a burbling sound through the flute (the second obvious connection between music and narrative), and the music quietly fades away. Junk Shot contains several memorable moments of music with catchy rhythms, haunting harmonies, and innovative melodies.
Ronald Perera’s Crossing the Meridian (1982), a cycle of five poems set for tenor and small ensemble, concerns those moments of “Hang-period meridian passage” (to quote the penultimate line from James Dickey’s “Math,” the last poem set). The first movement, “July 18, 1846, crossing the Great Divide” (text by Ruth Whitman) has a flowing, rocking character, while the second, “That Sensual Phosphorescence” (text by Lawrence Ferlinghetti) indulges in the sensuality of sounds. Hart Crane’s “Meticulous, Past Midnight” builds to an intensity on “Nothing so flagless as this piracy,” before the passion wanes. “Danse Russe,” setting William Carlos Williams’s poem by the same name (and combining clarinet and marimba with tenor), is a playful, dancing work. The final setting, of Dickey’s “Math, is a resonant work based on the harmonic overtone series of C, and ending on a resounding and suspended “Sing.” Frank Kelley, tenor, brought shape and verve to these songs, embodying their different characters each in turn. As before, the instrumentalists delivered a precise and spirited rendition of the music.
Following intermission, William Kirkley took the stage for a solo clarinet work: Donald Martino’s B.A.B.B.IT.T (a musical birthday card) (1966). This work is scored for a B-flat clarinet with extension tubes of the composer’s design; the piece is performed without the clarinet’s bottom bell, and tubes are inserted as demanded, most often while the music continues uninterruptedly. The result is to extend the instrument’s range an additional 16 notes, and to merge the timbres of B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet. As Kirkley commented, “Performing this work is an exercise in coordination,” and one he managed very well using feet and knees to shorten or lengthen some tubes while playing. The music is apophthegmatic, befitting a tribute to Milton Babbitt; Kirkley’s performance was a fitting combination of melodic contours and rhythmic clusters that captured the essence of this work.
The final piece on the program was the world premiere of Bernard Hoffer’s Concerto di Camera II (2011), written for Boston Musica Viva and especially their cellist, Jan Müller-Szeraws. This work is a three-movement concerto for cello and chamber ensemble (percussion, flute, clarinet, violin, piano, and prepared piano – muted with boards and weights to give it the sound of a pizzicato orchestra). The opening Moderato sets in play a tension between cantabile and percussive playing which runs throughout the whole work; the b-section highlights fast passage work for cello, before a return to the a-section. The “Scherzo” calls for muted piano and predominantly pizzicato cello in triple metre. The finale, “Duet Variations and Passacaglia on the Circle of Fifths,” comprises the bulk of the composition. A double set of variations on the progression through the circle of fifths, this movement is a study in multiple characters and personalities, each very different: the duet between cello and clarinet is lilting, that between cello and percussion is ethereal, numinous (relying on harmonics and atypical percussion strikes). Müller-Szerwas gave a command performance of this work, shifted character and style with rapidity and ease, and braved the bravura technical demands of Hoffer’s composition with unflinching grace and dignity. This composition is a testament to Müller-Szerwas’ prowess as cellist, Hoffer’s compositional artistry and wide-ranging creativity, and Boston Musica Viva’s steady commitment to new music. Throughout the concert the honest and friendly collaboration between all of the musicians helped spotlight the music and produced high-calibre performances of which they and the composers could be justifiably proud.
Program notes with more details about the composers and works can be found here. Elmquist’s Junk Shot is the winner of the 2010 Rapido!® Composition Contest, described by the composer as an “Iron Chef” competition where composers have fourteen days to present a six-minute teaser composition. Junk Shot is the elaboration of that teaser. For more information on the competition see its website here.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.