Wednesday’s concert by Juventas New Music Ensemble was entitled “Music in Motion” because every piece of music was paired with some form of theater, mostly in a wide variety of puppetry from Brookline Village’s Puppet Showplace Theater. Held at the American Repertory Theater’s Club Oberon, it was an informal affair, complete with a full bar and table service. As an evening of entertainment with a modernist edge, it was a success. As a presentation of music and movement, it was pretty hit and miss.
The hits were striking indeed. Best of all was the Nasenflügeltanz, which comes from what scholars refer to at the “bat-shit-crazy late period” of Karlheinz Stockhausen when he was working on the cycle of operas known as Licht, the same work that produced the infamous “Helicopter Quartet” and other oddities. Nasenflügeltanz comes from the third scene of the opera Samstag (Saturday). Licht was to consist of one opera for each day of the week, and is part of a series of movements that makes up “Lucifer’s Dance”, all named for parts of the face. In addition to Nasenflügeltanz (wing-of-the-nose dance) there are Linker Augenbrauentanz (left-eyebrow dance), Zungenspitzentanz (tip-of-the-tongue dance), etc. Written for drumset (and apparently some non-credited electronic sounds), it was a tour-de-force for percussionist Stuart Gerber. In addition to playing his drums, he was also called upon to sing and utter German, and at times to thrust his arms up into the sky in a gesture I imagine Stockhausen thought was hieratic but which called to mind Spinal Tap. The music for all its wildness is firmly disciplined, with elements recurring but not exactly repeating: it has a crazy Dionysian surface whose evolution is controlled precisely. The puppetry that accompanied it (by Brenda Huggins) was simple, and in the spirit of Stockhausen’s own weirdness: a disembodied eye, ear, lips and disturbingly phallic nose wandered around on stage, occasionally attempting to form a face but never succeeding.
Nasenflügeltanz was preceded by soprano Anna Ward’s performance of Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody, a graphic score made up of images from cartoons depicting sounds (the curious can easily find pages of the score on the internet). Berberian could be as wild and crazy as Stockhausen: Ward is more of a “good sport” type, and we were invited to find the whole thing merely amusing by having fragments of the score placed on cards behind the singer, to which she occasionally pointed, as if giving a lecture or demonstrating at a state fair. Ward was intensely focused and produced a gratifyingly wide variety of sound, although the series of interesting moments generated didn’t really add up to anything more significant.
The performance given by Orlando Cela of Varèse’s Density 21.5 for solo flute was in a different category. His reading was especially lyrical, making one think more of Debussy than of Octandre, and he gave it while moving around on stage, enacting a brief scene of seduction and abandonment with Avital Manor-Peleg, who was dressed in black and wore a sculpted white mask with an inscrutable expression. It was an unexpected pairing of music and scenario, a brief episode that lingered in memory after it ended.
The misses include two groups of works, beginning with some that succeeded musically or visually, but whose components had little to say to one another. In many cases the music acted merely as atmosphere; or, if the events in the music matched up with actions on stage, it functioned much like silent movie accompaniment. For example, Eric Satie’s Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes) for violin and piano (Olga Patramanskaya, violin; Jessica Rucinksi, piano) is a work in Satie’s extroverted and humorous vein, with sarcastic classical clichés occasionally bursting out from a genial surface. This was paired with a scene of a homeless man and a large fuzzy creature fighting violently over a huge sandwich. The two pieces shared only their mildly outrageous sense of humor.
Ligeti’s early folk-influenced Sonata for Solo Cello was played by Mike Dahlberg in parallel with a static scene that depicted a very old person (whose blocky head and unruly hair vaguely recalled Beethoven) looking through a photo album in a room filled with old objects (an old turntable turning without a record on it; a large biplane model; a shoetree). The program notes reminded us that Ligeti’s family were all sent to concentration camps in World War II and only he and his mother survived. Perhaps the scene was meant to reflect on that. Ligeti’s alternately mournful and agitated music more or less fit such an interpretation, but seemed beside the point. The scene matched to American composer Libby Larsen’s (b. 1950) Black Birds, Red Hills for viola, clarinet and piano (Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet; Drew Ricciardi, viola) was more overtly historical. The movements of Larsen’s piece interpret paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, and so we saw life-size puppets depicting in broad strokes the arc of inspiration and betrayal that marked O’Keefe’s relationship with her lover Alfred Steiglitz. From the Cave by 15-year-old Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg for chamber ensemble and voices came last. Ostensibly inspired by Plato’s famous allegory (at one point there voices intone “nothing is real!”) the accompanying shadow puppetry was not at all on the same page, depicting a rather more literal love story of a young miner. Though the puppetry was exquisitely detailed and movingly cinematic, it seemed to have missed the point the music was making. Wenzelberg is clearly talented and can develop musical material, but it could not compete with the images it was meant to accompany. But neither could Larsen, for that matter; the large-headed O’Keefe and busy Stieglitz puppets drew my attention away from the music, and as each movement ended I realized I had stopped listening. Oberon is not an ideal venue for music, with almost no reverberation; the Juventus players managed as best they could in the space, but they always felt just a little too far away.
Then there were the failures: Luciano Berio’s O King (1968), a tribute to Martin Luther King, has an eerie drifting vocal line accompanied by spiked accents from a small instrumental ensemble. The text is made up of the letters of King’s name, first out of order, then in order. Its oblique sense of elegy was forced to occupy the stage with an embarrassingly didactic commentary on our current state of racial relations: puppet skiers negotiating a white mountain upon which was written “I have a dream”, while signs were intermittently held up displaying ripped-from-headlines phrases (“Black lives matter”, “I can’t breathe”) to be sure we got the point.
Then there was Scott Barton’s Intersections for ensemble and robotics. The human players were shunted off to the far back corner of the stage, while at the center there stood a drum set with little plastic pieces each holding a stick, and flat platform that must have had contained some sort of strings that were agitated by some device or other. I enjoy carillons and music boxes as much as the next guy, but not at a concert with presumably serious music. Intersections needed to be started twice due to technical difficulties and given the glances going back and forth on stage perhaps it didn’t all work quite as expected even in the redo. There were supposed episodes where the computer would “react” to improvisations from the live players; there was some fitful bursts of sound, reacting best to during percussionist Nate Gerber, but the machine was mostly subdued. The music was not compelling, the robotics underwhelming, and the whole spectacle alienating. Classically trained musicians are already sufficiently marginalized that the spectacle of their serving as appendages to an assemblage of servo motors driven by Barton’s Macbook discouraged and depressed.
Preceding the puppetry was a 30-minute comic opera by Oliver Caplan (libretto by Meghan Fitzgerald) entitled The Cellist is Dead, a whodunit made up mostly of Macguffin, for four stereotypes: the uptight arts patron (mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos), the waiter (tenor Davron Monroe), the obnoxious rich guy (baritone Jacob Cooper) and the ditzy diva (Ward). It was entertaining, funny, and comprehensible without either supertitles or a printed text; the singers did wear microphones, but if there was amplification, it was unobtrusive. Caplan’s music was unthreatening, conjuring up everything from Sondheim to non-PDQ Bach Peter Schickele. Despite the second-class status of the music in many of the offerings, Juventas’s Artistic Director Lidiya Yankovskaya presided over consistent and professional performances.