John Heiss has been a quiet force of mentoring and coaching young musicians at New England Conservatory for going on 50 years. His courses on Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky have schooled two generations in the roots of 20th-century modernism. Stravinsky called him “the pitch doctor” for his unerring ear. He’s also been a steadfast beacon of good musical taste.
Tuesday evening, students in the NEC Contemporary Ensemble performed Heiss’ deftly curated selection of chamber pieces, early and late, of “titanic modernist” Elliott Carter (1908–2012), quicksilver vocals of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and newer works. All sounded fresh and pure: an invigorating herald of spring. The evening unfolded in Jordan Hall’s ever-intimate gilt and mahogany amphitheater, typically keenly, if sparsely, attended. [NEC confers on Heiss an honorary Doctor of Music at its commencement, May 19. DM recipients also include Italian opera scholar Philip Gossett, innovative drum manufacturer Remo Belli, pianist Graham Johnson, and Africa-steeped Brooklyn-born jazz pianist Randy Weston, the last in concert April 18 with Ken Schaphorst’s Jazz Orchestra.]
Freshwoman (!) Sonnet Swire’s Wiosna Hop (Spring Dance) set an exhilarating vernal tone, as wind quintet Philharmonic Five chirped sprightly and speedily through her thicket of bird calls. (I was as pleasantly astonished as when, birding in the Fenway Victory Gardens before Red Sox Opening Day, I came upon four Golden Crowned Kinglets, trilling high and flitting low in maples.) The Five are Adrian Sanborn, piccolo, Timothy Feil, oboe, Hunter Bennett, tiny Eb clarinet, Brittney Walker, bassoon, and Paige McGrath, horn.
Green, then hoary, Igor followed. Stravinsky’s Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont and Three Japanese Lyrics date from 1911—two years before Rite of Spring’s riotous premiere—but were closer to Song of the Nightingale in tone and spirit. Susanna Su’s pure, crystalline soprano sparkled over pianist Patricia Au’s twittering tremolos, as she sang of forget-me-nots blooming over a brook, a dove cooing over a crimson flower, and the sentiments they evoke. The Japanese miniatures, not quite haiku-brief, perch on the delicate twigs between winter and spring.
For The Owl and the Pussycat, his last completed work (1966), Stravinsky whimsically set Edward Lear’s animal love-poem for his wife, Vera. It was a sweet surprise, even if Ms. Su read it a tad seriously as Heiss, in white baseball cap and zany keyboard tie, played the witty counterpoint on piano.
Joan Tower’s Petrouchskates (1980) for a ‘Pierrot Lunaire’-like ensemble, whirled through Stravinsky’s Shrove-tide fair, banners waving and leaflets a-flutter, dipped to a clarinet murmur over mysterious trills, swept into bravura glissandi that echoed Messaien’s Quartet For The End of Time, and ended with frenzied stretti. Its seven minutes flew by in a trice. Celebrants were Allison Poh, flute; Peter Bauer, clarinet; Lisa Goddard, violin; Mira Luxion, cello; and Au on piano.
In marked contrast was Derek Geary’s North, an eloquent cantabile for two strings, performed by violinist Diamanda La Berge Dramm and violist Wenting Kang. The two dovetailed legato melody lines with subtly susurrant pizzicato asides rustled over a forest floor.
Carter’s Woodwind Quintet (1948) flyleafed the first half with Swire’s bagatelle, as it recalled the Philharmonic Five, now with the ‘usual’ instrumentation, Sanborn on C flute and Bennett on Bb clarinet. This adventuresome piece strides purposefully through varied moods in its two 4-minute movements: Walker’s laying down jaunty bass-lines, Bennett’s introspective coda, brisk staccato tutti reminiscent of Hindemith, and sly, slithery chromaticism at its bright end.
Sixty years later Frank Epstein commissioned Carter, then 98, to write his debut all-percussion piece. Tintinnabulation was the result, and Epstein conducted it again last night as his NEC Percussion Ensemble, six strong, worked over a not-so-dauntingly large an array of instruments, as Carter eschewed mallet keyboards here, but a quick check during intermission I spotted at least the following: woodblocks, conga drums, bongos, 36” Zildjian tam-tam, large bass drum, several gongs and gamelan bells, jawbone, dumbek, ratchets, rattles. Heiss remarks in his program notes:
When I sat with [Carter] in Jordan Hall in 2008, during the first rehearsal he attended, he laughed out loud, joyfully, saying: “It works! It works!” This could be a motto for his life work.
Carter indeed put this timbrally diverse battery to bold dramatic use, and the bristly reading brought the house to its feet. Calls for ‘encore’ went unheeded, “time and tide…” and all that.
Artem Belogurov airily executed Carter’s lightning toccata Caténaires (2006) far more fleetly and lyrically than any version I could find on YouTube.
Edward Kass’ double bass, alone in Figment III (2007), ran more robust, earthy arco/pizzicato sequences than suave Geary piece. Kass emphasized the contrasts of slow elegiac vs. stuttering passages, topping it off with sturdy col legno finials.
Cellist Emileigh Brooke Vandiver, festively clad and cheery of mien, and pianist Kai-Ching Chang, in stark white and inexorably percussive throughout, engaged in a tug-of-war on Carter’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948) that veered from playful and whimsical to anguished and intense, occasionally lending a note of unexpected gravitas to the exhilarating proceedings. And, judging by the animated chatter overhead in the lobby, I was not the lone patron to leave Jordan Hall with a spring in my step.