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Adventures with Callithumpians Shouldn’t Be Missed


Stephen Drury in file photo
Stephen Drury in file photo

Stephen Drury’s Callithumpian Consort chattered, buzzed, yelped, grumbled, and snorted  away at the Gardner before a somewhat small gathering. Fifteen musicians affiliated in some way or another with New England Conservatory confidently took up instruments and toys with which they exhibited unusually high technical acumen as well as a pronounced penchant for the stuffs in which Drury thrives. Any surprises so far?

Informally attired in a white long-sleeved summer shirt and jeans frayed at the cuffs, Drury amiably thanked those lining front rows of Calderwood Hall for coming and being adventurous. “If you are not adventurous, you are in the wrong place.” I didn’t see anyone make for the exit during the concert of better-knowns Zorn, Stockhausen, Donatoni and newer-comers Ianni and Scheuer.

Striking was the discursive, or babbly if understood as such, nature of the five distinctly diverse works going as far back as 1966 and as recent as 2014, a Callithumpian commission.

John Zorn’s 1993 Angelus Novus began with sparse clusters that created beating rather like a very large humming bird’s wings, a startling beginning to the piece and to the early evening’s program. Five contrasting movements (literal reading, crossroads, ascent, freedom, ordered), all short enough, all explosive with instrumental craft, commanded attention. Overtones dominated in ascent, ear-piercing in freedom, and babbly exchanges in literal reading. As to the performers, the four pairs of winds, sheer brilliance.

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1966 Adieu for Wolfgang Sebastian Meyer might have also been saying goodbye to “normal sounds” as Drury put it. Snatches of 18th-century likenesses injected into slow moving harmonies wavering in and out of tune, often becoming globs of pitches, were reminiscent of another kind of time. The conductor-less quintet of winds discussed abstractly and sympathetically the darker and lighter—was this to be construed as visionary and comedic as Drury proposed? This very young ensemble drew me into their own adventure at once appearing naïve and judicious. For some reason, the last third of the 15-minute work waned.

Orme d’Ombre by Davide Ianni (b. 1978) received its premiere. The composer was present. Ianni spoke about the Callithumpians, who commissioned his new work, and how they enabled him to further achieve his “sonic dream.” “In this piece I was interested in crossing the boundaries between goal driven music and sonic entities that exist independently of their time coordinates.” Twelve instrumentalists took up the switching of musical time and place, once again, playing whole-heartedly and, as far as I could tell, mind-bendingly. But for me, the new work was as old as the Pru. If there were freshness, or adventure (perhaps intrinsically), that escaped me. Trying to read the audiences reaction, I daresay it was probably less flummoxed than uninterested.

And talk about talking, that’s what Benjamin Scheuer (b. 1987) seemed to be up to in his piece called “Voices.” The two woodwind quintets, armed with toys and other objects less familiar to music making than with playtime (both for child—balloons and adult—wine glasses), could not stop calling and answering. Syntax gave way to inflections per se, words, no sentences, just babble. Not to be understood, inflections might suggest subtlety, this craziness was anything but.

Franco Donatoni’s Hot sizzled just about the whole way through its 15 minutes. Welcome repose, climactic builds, whirling jazz-stirred licks over a continuum of four-beat measures did not show that Hot—what an apt and attractive title—had aged one bit since its debut in 1989. Clarinets, saxophones, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion, and bass, mostly plucked as in America’s indigenous music, talked and talked some more. Elliot Carter once caught some flak for describing jazz as discursive. Well, Hot had something to say and said it melodically never mind rhythmically. One caveat, shouldn’t the piano “solo,” for lack of a better word, jibe more with the ensemble and jive? Certainly, this piece bears hearing over and again. Luckily, you can catch the same musicians (I believe) on YouTube with Drury conducting. What a trip, composition and performance alike, bravo! Encore!

Don’t miss another Drury and team concert—adventure! That program at Jordan Hall on Monday, September 22nd, 8 pm, will also include Donatoni’s Hot.

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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  1. Drury’s Thumpers rarely disappoint, and in such a handsome venue! Sorry to have missed it. Fred B

    Comment by Fred Bouchard — September 17, 2014 at 8:33 pm

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