Finding Pierce Hall was easy, after all. I had never been there before. It turned out be just a half a block away from New England Conservatory’s main building. A long line had already gathered in the hallway awaiting the “The Unbearable Lightness: First Candle.” The program booklet informed us that The Jewish Music Theater would be a celebrating the first candle of Hanukkah with a multimedia portrait of music by composer, Matti Kovler. In addition, and to my surprise, this celebration was to take on another mission, that of a presentation in partial completion of the Doctor of Musical Arts degree. Kovler is a student of Michael Gandolfi and John Heiss at the conservatory.
BMInt was asked to review this event and I was given the assignment. So I will give my account of the hour-long nonstop celebration-presentation, all the while keeping in mind that I am not on Kovler’s DMA panel.
Inside Pierce Hall seating was a valuable commodity. Was the celebration of the first day of Hanukkah or was it the doctoral presentation that brought a good-sized crowd out for the event?” The first of four rows of seats were to be taken up by the student performers, which left a row of folks standing at the back of the packed room. The lights went out except for those clipped on music stands and the eight small candles flickering on a good-sized screen.
Performers took their places to the accompaniment of quiet, impressionistic, piano doodling by the composer. The first piece on the program, Shoresh Nishmat (soul-searching), a trio for clarinet, cello and piano, also played in darkness, took not only to Jewish themes but to Jewish-Hassidic melodies, as well. The words describing the piece informed and the performance was top-notch. The three clicked off their lights while others were being clicked on, these for an eight-voice women’s choir with a touch of percussion instruments. Familiar harmonies and phrasings to simple rhythms showed another side of the composer’s bent for writing from a musical memory that was at once eclectic and conservative.
I think the piece we were all waiting for was “The Unbearable Lightness” for seven double basses and multimedia, which was placed toward the end. Expecting to hear rich deep harmonies, collaborative thumping, low roars and the like, and other explorations for this rare instrumentation, none of that materialized.
The six pieces played by an array of performers in the darkened room at Pierce Hall, the continuous music-making—between each of the pieces the composer at the piano—the visuals that were touted as “multimedia” left me with more questions than answers. Putting aside the celebratory intentions, the compositions and background improvs only proved that more and more, it was to become an indecipherable experience.
We learned that Matti Kovler is a Russian-born Israeli composer and artistic director of the newly established Jewish Music Theater. His works have been performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), Fox Studio’s Symphony Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the Ariel String Quartet (Israel), The Brillaner Duo and many others. I add here that he is also a student.