The title of Juventas New Music Ensemble’s opening series of concerts for this season, with performances on September 21st at First Church in Boston and September 22nd in Seully Hall at Boston Conservatory (we caught the latter) was “Emerge: New Music and Its Origins.” From this, one might have assumed the program would feature work by currently active composers and some Old Master antecedents. This was true in a manner of speaking, but the Old Masters on offer were Lee Hyla and Andy Vores, now in their fifties, an age at which, in the wider musical world, they might still be considered “young composers.” Gulp.
The first half of the program featured work by two 28-year-olds, starting with the premiere of Dominick DiOrio’s Scherzo for piano, performed by Julia Scott Carey. The work, the composer’s note tells us, was created as an occasional piece for a couple’s wedding anniversary. While in a more or less traditional A-B-A scherzo format, it is also a Thomsonian musical portrait of one of the couple, an evidently quaquaversal (to use one of Nicolas Slonimsky’s favorite words) chemistry professor. The opening tune, after a heady fanfare, is bright and waltzy, the “trio” more reflective and lower in register. It was a fairly brief and chipper confection, which Carey performed ably and with occasional flash that didn’t overpower the material at hand.
Next was Opal by DiOrio’s contemporary Mischa Salkind-Pearl, dating from last year, for vibraphone played by Brian Calhoon, marimba, by Matt Sharrock, and piano four hands, with Carey on primo, Lidiya Yankovskaya on secondo. The title is a bit of a stretch, taken from that jewel’s ability to refract light to make an interesting appearance out of an otherwise boring quartz-and-water composition. The first part, of two, sets up a dichotomy within the piano part of a tinkling primo against a broadly chordal secondo. The marimba and vibes contribute mostly decoration to this, though they gradually move toward a more complex rhythmic structure that is nevertheless rather barline-heavy. These two main concepts then alternate. The composer indicated that while color and register characterize the first half, harmony and rhythm anchor the second; we’re not as sure that dichotomy was as clearly presented, or to what end. We found the writing for the percussion frustratingly superficial, although there was enough complexity to require the performers to coordinate with head-nods by whichever had the momentary lead. The playing was effective and the ensemble seemed tight.
The first half ended with “old master” Vores’s 2003 piano quartet What I can’t kick, a meditation on obsession and addiction, inspired by the composer’s attempts to stop smoking. (Mark Twain said that quitting smoking was easy — he’d done itthousands of times.)The piece begins in a smoky miasma of string glissandi, with the piano building from an inchoate rumbling to a freight-train pounding. Vores has created a sort of verse-chorus or rondo format with a three-note motif becoming the object of obsession; it connects and divides everything else, sometimes lyrically, sometimes manically, sometimes pathetically, ending on an ambiguous cadence of deepest resignation. Yohanan Chendler, playing the violin; John Batchelder, viola; and Mike Dahlberg, cello, joined Carey in a persuasively emphatic performance of an engaging and revealing work.
The second half added winds to the mix, starting with Hyla’s 2006 Field Guide for Pierrot ensemble: Orlando Cela, playing flute; Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet; with Carey, Chendler, Batchelder, and Dahlberg, plus percussion played by Calhoon. This ensemble remained fixed for the rest of the program. Like Messiaen, Hyla has a weakness for birdsong, several of which he has incorporated into this piece. Our ornithological chops being weak, especially for the mostly exotic species Hyla imitates, we can’t comment on authenticity or really recognize them as what they are, other than as motivic raw material. Hyla weaves these fragments among passages of driving rhythm connected, he writes, by snippets from Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven. We admit to missing that connection. In general, Hyla’s roots in rock have attenuated to nothing any more beyond these heavily obscured allusions. Noisy and gentle passages are skillfully juxtaposed, with very little sense in our first hearing of architectural connectivity, but with some notable moments, as where the main motif emulates Scots fiddling. The able ensemble, conducted by Roberto Kolb, made a strong case for the piece.
The youngest composer on the program was 21-year-old Zach Sheets, a Vermont native in his junior year at Harvard. Gathers no moss, from 2011, purports to depict the voyage of the indicated geological spheroid on its journey from a hilltop plateau (no word what impelled it) to the bottom, ostensibly from the stone’s point of view. Sheets is probably too young to have thought to invoke that certain early-music ensemble in this piece, but he needn’t have bothered. The piece begins with a sinuous clarinet solo, very well played by Humphrey, to which the other instruments submit comments, before things really get, um, rolling. Much to its credit, the piece is not a simpleminded accelerando-crescendo, but it digresses: is the stone exhibiting an inner calm, is it expecting Sisyphus to carry it back up? It ends quietly as well, rolling to a stop. While not a work of great musical depth, it posits a refreshing philosophical detachment, and earned its composer, the only one present to be acknowledged, a well-deserved round of kudos. The band, this time conducted by Yankovskaya, once again brought the performance off with precision and aplomb.
The finale was by a more “middle”-aged figure, Curtis Hughes, 38, who teaches at Boston Conservatory. Danger garden, written for Collage New Music in 2006, seeks to create a coherent whole from some fairly unpromising bits and scraps of melody and rhythm. In two movements that recombine the same materials (“danger” and “garden” are mutual anagrams), by the end it had managed to do just that, eventually setting up a driving groove. The trip to that point passes by some colorful scenery, including a very engaging duet of bass clarinet and cello. Near the end of the second movement, Calhoon is required to put in some acrobatic turns to get from one end of the vibraphone to the other end for a crack at the drum. We’re constrained to say, though, that the work’s weak ending put a bit of a damper on, but on the whole the transformation from nothing to something was impressive. As we hinted, the performance, again conducted by Yankovskaya, was skillful and committed.