in: Reviews

January 30, 2012

Callithumpians’ Spontaneity in the Details

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Callithumpian Consort’s performance in Jordan Hall on January 25th featured an interesting mix of improvised and non-improvised performance. The composers represented on the program, Debussy, Nicholas Vines, Zorn, Murail, and Ikue Mori, represented a refreshingly wide array of styles and aesthetics. All but one piece were 21st-century. Had I left with much of the audience before the post-program improv session, I would sorely have lost out!

The Callithumpian Consort’s performance in Jordan Hall on January 25th featured an interesting mix of improvised and non-improvised performance. The composers represented on the program, Debussy, Nicholas Vines, Zorn, Murail, and Ikue Mori, represented a refreshingly wide array of styles and aesthetics.

Being the only pre-21st-century piece on the program, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp was perhaps the most familiar work of the program. It is more harmonically conservative than most of his late works but has all of the textural and figurative appeal that makes Debussy’s music so unique. Karina Fox, Jessi Rosinski, and Franziska Huhn’s playing was crisp and animated: qualities that played particularly well to the Finale. While the placement of the Debussy seemed a bit odd on a program otherwise consisting entirely of pieces composed in the last eight years, some link between Debussy and Murail’s Lachryme, after intermission, appeared to be the motivation for such programming.

Nicholas Vines’s Economy of Wax, a setting of an excerpt from Darwin’s The Origin of Species for soprano, flute, viola, and harp, features a peculiarly scientific description (in prose) of an experiment involving bees constructing and maintaining their hive. The piece had some nice moments of lyricism between soprano and piccolo and exhibited a masterful control of contrapuntal texture. Since the text hardly has an ounce of expressive potential, Vines chose to focus more on vocal acrobatics than clarity of text. The writing contained itself to a single contrapuntal consistency, wonderfully evocative of the relentless swarming of Darwin’s bees, but ultimately it came across as rather stagnant and undermotivated. The piece was handled excellently by the performers, though balance was an issue at times.

John Zorn’s Orphée offered an interesting balance of notated music and improvised material. The piece opens with a noisy clash of dissonant and punctuated sonorities separated by awkward and immediate non-transitions: a block-structured caricature of modernism. The piece suddenly shifts into a very distant Minimalist territory, thorny stabs of dissonance now replaced with triadic, predictable bliss. Zorn thrives in the territory of these postmodern musical decisions and makes them appear much less arbitrary than many of his counterparts. Admittedly, the piece becomes “about” these stylistic shifts instead of the inner workings — which have the potential to be far more interesting. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of idioms was quite convincing, comical as they were.

Tristan Murail’s Lachrymae, composed for the Callithumpian Consort last summer at Sick Puppy (Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice), returned us to a meticulously controlled form of musical expression. While I have a deep admiration of Murail as a composer, a gripe I often have with his music is its tendency to marinate in its textures (gorgeous as they may be) with little concern for sustaining a sense of continuity through the narrative of the piece. Lachrymae seemed to go in the complete opposite direction, borrowing ubiquitously Classical tactics to organize constantly developing and profoundly moving materials while remaining “Spectralist” in its treatment of texture and harmony. The Callithumpians clearly invest a sense of ownership in this piece, resulting in the most convincing (by far) performance of the evening.

Ikue Mori, who performed live electronics on the Zorn earlier in the program, was again featured in her own composition, Confucius Becomes Popular, for large improvisational ensemble and animated video. It was more or less a collage of miniature narratives summarizing traditional Chinese parables, undoubtedly selected for their particular relevance to contemporary American politics. Musically, the piece seemed to relinquish almost all of its control to the performers’ collective intuition. Mori, in particular, had an unusually convincing grasp of her electronic setup, inventing her own meta-instrument that had both identity and expressive breadth. Her interactions with percussionist Nick Tolle at times were quite intriguing.

Much of the rest of the ensemble was less convincing; apparently they were more concerned with their own stage theatrics than with meaningful dialogue. This improvisational model worked better with the smaller group at the end of the performance, likely due to the presence of pianist Anthony Coleman, a true luminary in the world of free improvisation. Joined by Artistic Director Stephen Drury on piano, the improv session was quite engaging; the focus was purely on the intuitive interactions of the musicians, without any other visual guide. Had I left with much of the audience before this post-program improv session, I would have sorely lost out!

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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