in: Reviews

April 8, 2013

Showcasing Boston Composers

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Equilibrium Concert Series presented  new music by a stylistically diverse array of Boston-based composers on March 21st at First Church, Boston. The program included compositions by Davide Ianni, Marti Epstein, Yu-Hui Chang, and Chaya Czernowin, and marked the first official concert spotlighting the EQ Ensemble’s  roster.

Davide Ianni’s Inter Nos, the only work on the program to include electronics, featured soloist Philipp Stäudlin on soprano sax. I’ve had the opportunity to hear this work performed by Philipp twice before. On this occasion (either because of my growing familiarity with the piece as a listener, or Philipp as a performer), a meticulous and bountiful level of expressive detail materialized within the piece’s timbral soundscapes. Largely composed of saxophone multiphonics artfully woven into sustained electronic textures, the piece remains active and varied enough to keep far away from the sonic overindulgence that plagues so many other works (some highly celebrated) in this aesthetic. And Stäudlin’s abundant level of musicianship and showmanship make him the number-one go-to new-music-saxophonist in Boston. The composer’s control over timbre of both extended instrumental techniques and electronic synthesis are readily apparent on this work’s surface, but the engrossing poetics of Inter Nos exist deeper within the piece––begging for a second listen.

Troubled Queen, composed by Marti Epstein, featured a much larger ensemble, though not a typical instrumentation by any means. The piece nimbly balances the problematic combination of bass flute, bass clarinet, trombone, percussion, and string quartet. The textures in Troubled Queen are quite evocative, and the organization of these ideas is quite minimal. Inspired by Jackson Pollock’s seminal paining of the same name, the piece opens with a palette of sonic colors worthy of the correlation. But I find Pollock’s Troubled Queen to be full of angular motion, where Epstein’s Troubled Queen is much smoother, more lugubrious, and . . . well . . . a good deal less troubled. Nonetheless, the pacing of Epstein’s unique response to Pollock is deftly handled: always at the edge of becoming stagnant, but always transforming into something unpredictable and evocative. The performers were in top form, blending Epstein’s stirring harmonies with poise, and masterfully teetering on the brink between anxiety and catharsis.

Yu-Hui Chang’s When the Wind Comes, the Grass Bends, scored for string quintet (the standard quartet, with an extra cello), demanded the highest level of virtuosity from the performers. The challenge was well met, and flaunted a level of connection between EQ’s string players that rivals many more-established groups. Chang (who, in full disclosure, is a friend and past teacher of mine), composed the piece for the Lydian String Quartet on the occasion of the inauguration of a new President of Brandeis University. Thus, the piece takes as its subject the idea of leadership. Like much of Chang’s work, the piece is highly contrapuntal, with flourishes and glissandi running rampant among plucked strings and disjointed virtuosity. There’s no clear “leader” in this ensemble, and all’s the better. The constant dialogue is full of intrigue and activity while breathing with connective phrasing and satisfying flow. The second movement is more contemplative, and was graced by the delicate lyricism of EQ’s core string players. But much of the piece, particularly the third and final movement, is also quite playful. When the Wind Comes was a true rite of passage for this new ensemble, and an excellent choice for the evening’s stylistically multifarious program.

Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf is a fun piece for saxophone, electric guitar, piano, and percussion. The work uses a real underdog of the percussion setup––the ratchet–– as a centerpiece. EQ’s percussionist, Masako Kunimoto, deserves special praise for her control over the two ratchets, which are scored for with a level of rhythmic precision atypical for this instrument (and undoubtedly difficult to realize). Stäudlin, guitarist Andy Hanson-Dvoracek, and pianist Elaine Rombola were in impeccable form. The acrobatic synchronicity of the ensemble is almost enough to make the piece successful on its own, but the players brought an appropriate level of impolite finesse to Czernowin’s smartly brash writing, making the largely theatrical piece musical as well.

EQ’s next concert features soprano Aliana de la Guardia alongside this ambitious new ensemble. The program will feature music by Masaki Hasebe and Keeril Makan, at the Lily Pad in Cambridge at 8pm on April 27th.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a widely performed composer of chamber, orchestral, and electroacoustic music. He is currently on faculty at Brandeis University.

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