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Newish Music for Oldish Instruments


Lidiya Yankovskya, conductor (file photo)

“Emerge: New Music and Its Origins” was on offer from Juventas New Music Ensemble Friday at First Church in Cambridge, where a chamber orchestra of strings and percussion was joined by viola da gambist Andrew Arceci and flutists Carol Wincenc and Su Lian Tan; Lidiya Yankovskaya conducted.

I had not previously heard Juventas, whose stated mission is to perform “innovative new music by young, emerging composers.” Friday night’s concert was skillfully executed, but I would not describe the selections as particularly innovative, and I didn’t understand the significance of the program’s title, for nothing that I heard invoked “origins.” None of this is necessarily a reflection on the quality of the music, only on the packaging. One of the five works did involve an older instrument, a seven-string Baroque viola da gamba, and another imitated the sounds of the erhu, pipa, and perhaps other Asian instruments. But I’m not sure that the latter are any more “original” than the essentially 19th-century Western instruments that provided the bulk of what we heard.

Most of the compositions were of the neo-something variety popular today with both audiences and younger composers. Although not unskillfully written for the most part, they were more accessible than challenging. That this music could not have been written anytime but in the present is clear from the free use of dissonant passages of various sorts and the occasional unconventional or “extended” performance techniques. Yet all five composers frequently relax into tonal-sounding harmonies or the so-called pandiatonic writing familiar from mid-20th-century neo-Classical music. Frequent use of motile ostinatos might be a legacy of Stravinsky, but more often it seems an echo of the more recent minimalist music of Philip Glass, or of commercial pop or film music.

Each of the five compositions lasted roughly ten minutes, making for a rather short program. The first, “Ozark Dance” by Scott Etan Feiner, comprises four brief movements for string quartet. Led ably by violinist Olga Patramanskaya, the players succeeded in conveying the composer’s intended effect of blending bluegrass idioms with classic quartet writing. The 17-year-old composer handles the ensemble deftly and is not afraid to write lots of notes, creating impressively busy textures. An occasional rhythmic squareness is perhaps a reflection of the underlying folk style, which prevails in all but the third movement. The latter is presumably the funeral march mentioned in the all-too-brief program note (the movements were not listed in the program itself). This slow movement is doubtless deeply felt, yet the effect of the opening cello solo might have been deeper if it had developed more gradually rather than giving way rather soon to lush string chords—an easier sort of writing.

Feiner is evidently from New York (the notes were vague about this), but the next three pieces were by locally active composers. The Brooklyn-born violist Jonathan Blumhofer now teaches at Clark University in Worcester; composed last year, his “Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens” for string orchestra also received its premiere. Its title (“Always Dowland, always dolorous”), borrowed from one of the pavans in John Dowland’s Lachrimae or Seven Tears, did not prepare me for the very motoric opening, more reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s title music for Psycho (though not as dissonant) than anything by the Elizabethan composer. I didn’t recognize “shards of the lachrymae” in this first half, but that was because I didn’t realize that the composer was quoting from another Dowland work, the dance song “If my complaints” (also known as Piper’s Galliard).

The latter also provided the basis for much of the second portion, which begins with a very slow, imaginatively scored passage for a high, sustained solo violin. This is accompanied by quiet chords played without vibrato (like gambas?) by the rest of the ensemble, making for an effective contrast with the opening, and closing nicely with a brief reminiscence. But most of the second half consisted of long neo-tonal passages that struck me again as relatively easy to write, if obviously expressive of elegiac feeling.

Very different were the four “miniatures for two flutes,” as the composer describes them, that make up Mary Montgomery Koppel’s “Summer Palette.” Completed this year, this too was receiving its first performance. Performers Carol Wincenc and Su Lian Tan (now teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont) prefaced by noting that Koppel, now at Boston University and a founding member of the Lorelei Ensemble, studied with Tan and wrote the piece for the two players.

Short but not quite epigrammatic, the four evocatively titled movements (“Dandelion,” “Sky Blue,” “Scarlet,” and “Midnight”), did not reveal obvious connections with the music. They are, however, knowledgably composed for two flutes, making imaginative use of contrasts between consonant sustained writing for the two instruments playing in parallel lines, and more contrapuntal passages in which one flute typically takes off on a freer trajectory of its own. The two players gave strong, assured performances, particularly in the third movement, whose clever scoring in the resonant space of First Church made it sound as if more than two flutes were playing (nowhere in this concert was I aware of the acoustic problems that can baffle performances of earlier music in this space).

The largest (and oldest) work on the program was “Autumn Lute Song,” Tan’s own 1995 composition for flute and strings. Wincenc, who recorded it two years ago with Juventas, was solid in the solo part. This represents what the composer describes as the voice, juxtaposed against the “giant lute” represented by the orchestra. Presumably this is the Chinese lute or pipa, not the European (originally Arab) one, since the string orchestra frequently imitates other Asian instruments as well, such as the erhu, just as the flute seems to refer to Chinese folksong. I imagined, though, that I also heard various types of 20th-century orchestral writing, particularly in a dramatic passage that leads to a flute cadenza, lyrically intoned by Wincenc. As the strings reenter, they play slowly and quietly, accompanying little points of sound for the flute. That this quiet passage brings it to an end is an imaginative and affecting surprise.

The New York-based Arceci was soloist in the closer, his own “Suite II in G Minor” for viola da gamba, string orchestra, and percussion (chiefly timpani, played energetically by Matt Sharrock). This was described as “Neo-Baroque,” but it is not at all in the manner of such mid-20th-century efforts. Rather the soloist tends towards traditional-sounding licks reminiscent of French Baroque music. These alternate with decidedly un-Baroque drum strokes and brooding Wagnerian unison melodic fragments from the strings.

I could not tell whether the various brief episodes constituted separate movements or a connected narrative (again no movements were listed in the program). I do not think I was alone, moreover, in finding the ending something of a surprise: a series of dour unisons for the strings accompanied by loud drum rolls, followed by silence, sounded like a cue for an unpleasant movie villain, but nothing followed. It was a strange and somewhat anti-climactic way to end the evening.

David Schulenberg’s book The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach will be published later this year by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City; his website is here.

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