On Saturday night, the Juventas New Music Ensemble, now in its seventh year, brought to The Museum of Modern Renaissance in Somerville a program of five works by five composers, all of whom were under 36.
It seems almost fitting that an evening filled with music that blurred the lines between form and function started with my having blurred my own lines between being a reviewer and being a mere concert-goer. Though I had carefully budgeted my time, a fight between the T operator and a commuter made for a 25-minute delay at the Boylston stop, so I missed the first half of the first piece, Expérience, by Phivos-Angelos Kollias. It wouldn’t be fair then for me to comment on it other than to say that the governing principle behind the piece as I understood it was that a singer on stage, baritone Bülent Güneralp, was not actually singing words for the audience passively to hear, but rather, giving the audience directives, so that they would be actively engaged. The music would swell, and every individual in the concert hall was to be part of the creation process, as he or she understood the sounds in his or her own way. From what I heard, the music was much more about texture than any discernible melody or harmony, and I rather liked the idea behind the piece.
The quite short second piece, Sumerian Poems by Yohanan Chendler, inspired by some 5,000 years old poetry, was quite a challenge. Though it did have interesting moments, neither cohesive structure nor drive was apparent. Moreover, the Sumerian inspiration was unclear, in part because the audience was not provided with the poems. The French horn player, Yoni Kahn, gave a particularly memorable performance, showcasing “textural” capabilities of his instrument with which I was unfamiliar. He was joined by pianist Christina Wright-Ivanova, clarinetist Wolcott Humphrey, and violist Elizabeth Stefan.
Without a doubt, the most affecting piece of the evening was next: Desire to Sleep, by Moshe Shulman. It was a sort of operatic scene-within-a-scene, starting with a maid exhaustedly rocking a baby to sleep while slipping in and out of consciousness herself. Her master comes in and beats her for her negligence but when he leaves, she falls asleep and dreams of a scene wherein she has become her own mother, taking care of her ill father (played by the same fellow who had played the master in the beginning of the scene) in his last moments of life. She wakes up, and the scene concludes in the room where it began, with the baby still in the crib. The piece is an insightful and moving meditation on the ambiguities of consciousness/unconsciousness dichotomy, and how that ambiguity speaks to the relationship between life and death. The often-beautiful music powerfully evoked the lethargic and irresistible calls of sleep, the chaos of waking existence, and the cyclical nature of life. Both of the singers (Anne Byrne and Bülent Güneralp) were outstanding dramatically and musically. They were supported by cellist Michael Dahlberg, bassist Jonathan Davies, bassoonist Adrian Morejon, violist Elizabeth Stefan, percussionist Brian Calhoon, and the violinist and clarinetist from the previous piece.
After intermission came As If Your Human Shape, by Graham Flett. It was a work of high post-modernism, unusual for this program as through-composed. The soprano, Anna Ward (who deserves special mention for the jaw-dropping precision and range of her voice) came on stage singing and carrying a large drum that was then taken over by the percussionist. She held up a flute for a while, before taking a seat. As a performer, she was playing with and exploring the world of the musicians. They were not merely sitting there creating sounds for us to hear. They existed as physical objects in the world of this work of art. The words were computer generated, necessarily devoid of meaning, existing only as “textness”. Unfortunately, while the idea was interesting, the music itself seemed remote. But might have that been the point? Such is the problem with any post-modern work: its re-appropriation of itself as an object of art renders it almost impervious to criticism. In addition Ward, the ensemble comprised violin, cello, piano, horn, clarinet as above, and flutist Orlando Cela. Erin Huelskamp served as stage director for this piece and the one above.
Last on the program were three scenes from an upcoming ballet HackPolitik, composed by Peter Van Zandt Lane. Inspired by the notorious hacker-group Anonymous, it featured four dancers (Andrew Trego, Matthew Ortner, Chelsea Robin Lee, and Kate Ladenheim, all members of the contemporary dance company People Movers Dance), all of who were wearing black leotards and masks to represent the anonymity of their online personae. The dancing, choreographed by Ms. Ladenheim, was largely characterized by choppy, segmented movements that would become more fluid when the dancers started moving in unison. When the music got going, it was rhythmically and melodically reminiscent of the soundtrack from a 1960’s spy show, no doubt a nod to the sly and secretive act of computer hacking. But this score was far more angular, jarring, and sophisticated than music from TV of that era. The live performance was also often melded with computerized sonic textures, which gave the work an altogether 21st -century feel, suggesting that the secret agents of our era are not corporeal beings like James Bond, who run and climb and swing and drive, but rather, cyber beings whose range of movements do not take place in the physical world. Of course, an irony of this construct is that these cyber-gestures were represented by the most physical of activities—Dancing. Indeed, the piece was a clear effort to keep high art performance relevant by framing it as a reflection of the hot-button issue of cyber-terrorism, One wonders, though, if the divide between the physical and the cyber-world is expressible in something as traditional as a ballet. Perhaps entirely new modes of expression need to be developed. Still, the offering was well worthwhile; at its best moments being very compelling. The performers (pianist, violinist, cellist, violist, flutist, clarinetist, and percussionist) executed brilliantly, and the dancing was, to my untrained eye, excellent.
There was another artistic presence, the one which framed the concert, and that was the venue. I had never been to the utterly remarkable Museum of Modern Renaissance before. Every square inch of the ceilings and walls of the concert hall is covered in beautiful, colorful paintings, both representational and abstract. It added tremendously to the experience. Surely, this is a unique Boston-area attraction that more people should know about.