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Some Treasure Lost at Gasson Hall


“The Callithumpian Consort is dedicated to the proposition that music is an experience,” the program notes read. “Experimental” also surfaced last night in Stephen Drury’s introductory remarks to the Consort’s concert at Gasson Hall on the campus of Boston College.

How informative are such broad terms as “experience” and “experimental?” Already having listened to an experimental work of Alvin Lucier, Drury pointed out quite simply—eloquently—that pieces by Charles Ives would be “more like how we expect music to sound.” Where Gasson Hall may have promoted Yldirim and Lucier, it impeded Ives.

Many in the Boston area look to Stephen Drury for introducing us to the wildly different esthetics of 20th and 21st century composition and improvisation. For over 30 years, he and his Callithumpians, some of Boston’s finest musicians, have provided “an exciting adventure shared by performers and listeners alike.” His ongoing summer institute at NEC, where he teaches, continues to be yet another Boston singular treasure.

One of those composers who recently attended Drury’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice was asked to write a piece for the Consort. Onur Yldirim’s mûş-i zamân II was first on the program. He introduced his piece by recounting a taxi ride home from the airport during which he recorded the voice of the driver. Then, applying the rigors of physics to the recording, he came up with material for a three-part composition that would follow the route of a number of “newer” compositions, working his way out of chaos into order. Order could be recognized through repetition. Under Drury’s fired up direction, strings, winds, piano, harp and percussion showered Gasson hall with less common sonic combinations that intrigued. A more common continuum alternated action and repose. Behind the ten-minute piece’s swirls and shocks of sound, brightness shone.  I am not thinking of the physics per se, which, by the way, were orchestrated well beyond my recognition. It was rather the composer’s own smart choices he made over and again. His ear for detail particularly lent itself to an overall attractiveness. He bypassed modernity’s assaults instead producing a series of sonic invitations and puzzles.

Drury described Alvin Lucier’s Braid, also composed for the Consort, as “a soft and slow moving sound sculpture.” Drury pointed out the absence of gestures and the other like features of familiar music. This would leave us in as nearly static state. It was more like being exposed to a hum of some kind of machine. Its narrow parameters over 16 minutes lulled and finally dulled the senses. Did this experimental music succeed or fail? How so?

Two Charles Ives songs, “Sunrise” and “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” did not fit Gasson Hall; the venue’s excessive resonance diminished Mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo’s presence. Also, with no raised stage or rake to the seating, seeing the performers over the heads of others was difficult, some neck straining needed. After intermission, the strong turnout’s having slimmed somewhat, may also have affected the room’s sound. Sharp edges, staccatos, voice projection, all were, in varying degrees, lost. With Drury at the piano, this performance of the music by a man who said he preferred eating his chicken whole (as opposed to the French way with their cherished refinements) tasted of escargot. The tones of Gabriela Díaz’s high silver-stringed violin, though, haunted.

Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano of Ives featured Díaz, Benjamin Schwartz, and Drury. Hampered by the wetness of the room, especially anytime where speed, loudness, or density became involved, much of this exceptional music making was inundated.

On a better note, on seeing so many young people at the Consort’s concert, I wondered if they were able to recognize any of the old secular tunes and hymns popular in Ives’ days that were sprinkled throughout the trio. In residence at Boston College, the Callithumpian Consort continues presenting pubic concerts while working in classrooms with young students. The answer might just be yes!

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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