Last night at Jordan Hall, the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP) under the artistic direction of Stephen Drury presented a thoughtfully conceived and skillfully rendered program of works informed by ideas of fragments and juxtapositions of sound. Drury’s Callithumpian Consort colleagues are some of the best youngish musicians in Boston, and their playing was top-notch. The program served also as homage to Lee Hyla, one of Boston’s best-loved and respected composers, whose sudden passing, at age 62 this month, shocked and saddened the musical world.
The first three works on the program, Hyla’s Basic Training (1994), John Zorn’s Carny (1989), and Frederic Rzewski’s Down By the Riverside (1979), were for solo piano, which showed that Stephen Drury remains a musician of vast intelligence and sensitivity. His extraordinary technique is a thing to watch and hear: he brings clarity where there seems none, and the playing has depth, drama, humor, and pathos. Hyla’s work was described as a study in the progression of pianistic technique, from clomping on the keyboards to, as the composer described, “sophisticated intimacy” with the instrument. The work has a strong sense of line, is melodic without being exactly singable, and ends with a long decay to silence.
Carny is quite a work. Zorn’s piece sounds as though a classical pianist of considerable skill has been forced to make his living in a dive bar, has had a psychotic break, and is now swirling through his vast and varied repertoire without anchor, bits of familiar-sounding tunes floating up from the flotsam (you know you’re in a sophisticated crowd when a hint of Tristan chord evokes a smirk of appreciation from the audience). I can’t imagine the piece getting a better performance than Drury gave.
Rzewski’s Down by the Riverside started with barely a break, and was not so much theme and variations on the familiar folk song but an unraveling of it. Another first-rate performance.
The final piece on the first half was Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan (1994), for the unlikely combination of bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. The program notes make mention of the connection between the title and the plight of contemporary art music; the Etruscan language is lost and undecipherable to the modern age, though its speakers created a beautiful and extraordinary body of art. Whether the music spoke to the audience, it was clear the two instruments were speaking to each other. In their higher registers, the two have a very primordial sound, at times a great honking dinosaur love duet, other times playing more softly in different kinds of conversation. At one point the saxophone offered a long, lovely line while the bass clarinet nattered like an annoyed spouse. There were many jazzy interludes and fascinating uses of register throughout. Rane Moore, bass clarinet, and Philipp Staeudlin, bari sax, gave it their all to great effect.
After intermission, a large chamber ensemble performed the premiere of Chaya Czernowin’s Wintersongs IV: Wounds/Mistletoe (2014). I wanted to like this, I really did. But after an opening which identified this piece as belonging to what a composer colleague calls the “squeak/fart” school of composition, I became less sympathetic. Some ideas seemed good, but should be left on the studio floor. There were times when if I had not been watching I would not have known anything was happening. They were blowing into their oboes, clarinets, and saxophones but making no more sound than a dog whistle. The only sound an accordion in the ensemble required to make was a clicky keystroke. At other times the musicians were asked to blow (soundlessly, it seems, even in the acoustic of Jordan Hall) across the mouth of plastic water bottles. This was contrasted by piccolos shrieking at fffff in their highest range, so painful that several audience members (myself included) stuck their fingers in their ears. Some nice cymbal work and a starkly icy feel evoked winter, contrasted with pleasing Varese-like interruptions from the brass, but overall, this emperor’s outfit was thin.
The next work was Hyla’s Migracion (2013), a spare, pointillistic setting of a text by Pablo Neruda. Whether one reads Spanish or not, the musicality of the poetry begs to be set, and Hyla did a beautiful job. The large ensemble never overshadowed the lovely light mezzo of Thea Lobo, whose voice soared like the birds she was describing in her higher registers. It is heartbreaking to think of the work that could have come from this pen.
The final work on the program was by Charles Ives, the Set for Theatre Orchestra (1911). To finish the thought-provoking program with this 20th-century giant was a masterstroke. While evoking the more sentimental age in which Ives lived, the work still sounds as vibrant and fresh as the pieces which came afterward. Ives is clearly the grandfather of Zorn and Hyla in his joy in aural chaos. The three short pieces, ‘In the Cage’, ‘In the Inn’, and ‘In the Night’, are little scene paintings. In the first, timpani represent the pacing of a leopard in a zoo; in the second, the jangly jazz of a bar is called to mind, and in the final, largest piece, there is velvety evocation of eternity similar to The Unanswered Question. The instruments were placed in a square across the stage and some played offstage as well. This must have been revolutionary at the time. What Ives was trying to recreate was the sense of sound and music coming from all directions simultaneously, just as we experience it in life, with no filters. Maddening for the genius who can perceive and reach for re-creation, enthralling for those listening.