A good crowd of new music aficionados gathered at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall for Boston Musica Viva’s Saturday night concert, “Trials of Youth,” comprising three works by living composers, including one world premiere and one Northeast premiere.
Most concerts with the composers in attendance do no more than acknowledge them during the applause. Here, their presence was a significant aspect of the concert experience: after director Richard Pittman introduced each individual and described the commissioning process, he ceded the stage for the three composers themselves to introduce their pieces. This was no idle repetition of the printed program notes; the three were also available at the following reception for a meet-and-great and informal discussion of their works and processes. All of this added up to a very different concert experience than normal, even compared to other new music ensembles in the area.
The program order moved from youngest to oldest and early career to advanced. Charles Zoll, a graduate student at Montreal’s McGill University, contributed Bailes encima del escritorio de nuestra juventúd (Dances atop the School Desk of Our Youth”). A five-minute version of this piece took home the national prize in this year’s Rapido! composition contest, which also commissioned Zoll to expand the work into the 15-minute version heard in the concert.
Bailes. . . (2013) is a lively and varied, five-movement dance suite, with each movement given an evocative bilingual title. Although the composer noted in his remarks that most of the music was far too fast for actual dancing, it is this stage-savvy reviewer’s informed opinion that the whole work is eminently danceable and would be fine for a modern dance ensemble. Each movement has sections highly evocative of entrances and exits, featured solos, and dramatic lighting shifts—perhaps in part because of Zoll’s own background as a dance accompanist. His scoring made skilled use of the oboe, piano, violin, and cello that it employed.
The first movement, titled “mantén el paso / keep it up”, opened in a lively fashion, with a pulsating, syncopated rhythm punctuated by jagged instrumental interjections. The second movement, “tango sombrío / serious tango”, began with a slow and introspective passage for solo piano that introduced an important “cuckoo” motif. The strings were gradually overlaid over the piano, eventually being joined by the oboe as well. Then the introspective material returned and the layering process repeated, the texture growing more discordant as the tension built towards a musical event. As the cello and piano together took up the “cuckoo”, the section came to an end.
The third movement, “sigue así / as you were”, was fun, light, and freewheeling. Described by the composer as a Lindy Hop, it certainly evokes the freewheeling dance solos and sparkling jazz piano from the heydays of the Savoy Ballroom. Cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws’s slap-stroking playing was a surprisingly good ringer for a stand-up bassist’s walking bass line.
A sense of growing momentum infused the last two movements, “zapateado pensativo / pensive zapateado” and “¡cálmate! / calm down”. The zapateado is a traditional Latin dance characterized by shoe-clicking, tapping, and striking the ground; if this titular reference was more opaque than others, the music was quite engaging on its own. Although a page turn gone wrong briefly halted the performance, the BMV players barely batted an eye as they quickly reset and resumed. Along the way were ostinato passages, textures built up from threadbare to lush, and a cadenza-like passage for oboe (beautifully played by Miri Kudo). The final movement did anything but calm down as it ramped up its rapid tempo for the finale.
The second work was a composition by Andy Vores, a professor at Boston Conservatory. His contribution, Fabrication 15: Amplification (2013), is part of a planned 32-piece set and has a far more interesting origin story than its numbering might suggest. Its original inspiration came from Vores’ overhearing a piano rag practiced very slowly during a walk through the Harvard Yard; it treats Scott Joplin’s Peacherine Rag as a sort of found art object. (Fabrication 15 is an expansion of Vores’s 2006 Slow Peacherine Rag for solo piano; the new scoring employs flute/alto flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, percussion/vibraphone, violin, and cello.)
Vores described this composition as including “probably the slowest and quietest music” ever to flow from his pen; it is certainly atypical of his output. The music began with a number of disjointed elements, out of rhythm yet responding to each other. The sonic texture eventually knit together as the instruments united for a new musical episode that explored a multitude of colors and timbres. There appeared to be some subtle intricacies of timing at work, but this was largely beneath the surface: many of Pittman’s cues to the ensemble had little audible connection to the sound or the phrasing.
Scott Joplin’s quoted material was only sporadically recognizable. One of the more notable passages featured the flute, violin, and cello playing a slow counter melody over the piano rag; the timbres of the former three instruments were so well-blended that it was only when the flautist breathed that it became apparent how complementary and subtly attuned they were. Contrary to expectation, there was no clear rendition of the rag at the end of Fabrication 15; the ending was rather anti-climatic and stopped abruptly, as if the person playing the rag had stood up in the middle of a phrase to go to class.
The final piece on the program came from an older but well-aged vintage. Thea Musgrave’s chamber opera for solo baritone The Mocking-bird (2000) is a BMV commission, having received its world premiere back in 2001. It possesses a strong dramatic aesthetic and sense of timing that still gives it an air of both freshness and timelessness. The libretto (derived from a Civil War short story by Ambrose Bierce) likewise remains poignant.
The star of The Mocking-bird was baritone David Kravitz, who gave a riveting portrayal of a frightened and confused private in the Union Army. Kravitz’s singing and acting performances were stellar, but his voice was simply too loud for Pickman Hall; the acoustic’s being so frequently oversaturated stole some of the punch of the dénouement. Although this was a purely concert staging, the use of recorded effects and movement helped to create a vividly engaging experience. (In her introductory remarks, Musgrave recalled being inspired by radio plays and radio operas.)
This was also conductor Richard Pittman’s moment to finally shine. If the other pieces had offered fewer opportunities or obscured his contribution as conductor, the opera afforded ample recompense. His detailed attention to dramatic timing and deft grasp of the fine art of underscoring were strongly displayed. In chamber operas of this scale and heft, the conductor can make or break a performance; many splendid things were made Saturday evening. As most of the opera’s narration is delivered in a continuous stream, Pittman’s contribution to imparting the sense of time and transition with the orchestra should not be underestimated. Special note should also be given to the supporting performances of flautist Lisa Hennessy (including a long flutter-tongued passage) and cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, both of whose instrumental lines were often closely intertwined with Kravitz’s character. It was a powerful ending to a strong evening of new and newer music.