At its debut concert at Jordan Hall on Sunday (Jan. 24), Hub New Music, an organization founded by NEC graduate Michael Avitabile, will play music of Kati Agócs, member of the NEC composition faculty. Hub is also in residence at Northeastern in February. Despite these local connections I was unfamiliar with the group and the composer, so I asked Avitabile to fill me in.
“Five years ago, if you had told me I would be running a contemporary music organization, I would have told you that you were insane.” Avitabile completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, where he had started his a career with the goal of playing in an orchestra. However, a creeping sense of disillusionment with the orchestral track made him especially susceptible to the message delivered by flutist Claire Chase at Northwestern University’s 2013 commencement. Chase’s speech [here] opened by noting the gloom surrounding the traditional prospects for classical employment, but was ultimately a call to arms to see this change as an opportunity for a new kind of music making and for creative ways of engaging a new audience; the speech was enough of an internet sensation for Anthony Tommasini to write about it in the December of that year in the New York Times. Chase’s words changed Avitabile’s idea of what was possible and worthwhile for a classical musician, furthered by his study at NEC with Paula Robison.
Hub’s core group is not a typical chamber ensemble. Avitabile calls it a “portable Pierrot ensemble”: flute (Avitabile), clarinet, violin and cello, lacking only the piano. “You can just go into someone’s living room and start rehearsing… It’s just weird enough. There’s a surprisingly large body of work for it, but there’s plenty of room to commission new work.” In addition, in the group’s brief lifetime (2015-2016 is only its second full season) it has demonstrated impressive creativity in its programming: the Agócs concert is a “portrait” concert, focusing on one composer; Andrew Norman was the focus of a previous portrait concert at the MFA, which additionally emphasized to Norman’s interest in architecture. Last year saw them present the “Composium” project, which brought composers and audiences into closer conversation. This year Hub has launched “Pushing Boundaries”, a project that features music that straddles genre boundaries, music closely associated with the New York/Brooklyn scene (think New Amsterdam or Bang on a Can, and other beat-driven classically composed music).
The Agócs concert on Sunday is the product of two years of discussion, starting with Avitabile’s accosting the composer while working with her students, then playing a handful of works, and now has resulted in an entire evening of pieces. “We had started the group with a mission of doing exclusively New England composers, and Kati is one of the most brilliant… The work is global in its interest, and diverse. Her music has everything in it. It’s a unified, distinct voice that can speak everything from 19th century Romantic lyricism to Modernism to Hungarian folk music (Agócs is Hungarian). She takes all of these influences and fuses them into this very special, unique voice.” There is indeed a great deal of variety on the program Sunday, with a number of guest artists being added to the Hub’s core. The works will ranging from Crystallography (“an incredibly sweeping beautifully lyrical almost 19th century piece”) for soprano, Pierrot ensemble and percussion, to John Riley, a work for solo harp, as well as an homage to Agócs’ father for cello and cimbalom.
There is a lot of ambition here for a fledgling organization, and they are striking out in many directions at once. The projects do have a unifying theme, though. Talking to Avitabile, I’m struck by how often he says “community” while also talking about “stepping outside” the traditional concert, and it is this sense of bringing people together to share in the experience of contemporary music that sounds so exciting listening to him. I’ll give him the last word:
“This is about creating a dialog around this music, how it is a reflection of our time. A hundred years from now musicologists are going to look at this repertoire and say it is the music that defined a generation… music combining genres, music by people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identities… It is still a part of a tradition that is centuries old. We are just continuing it and diversifying it. There’s a sense of entrepreneurship: there are fewer jobs than there used to be. I want to play music, and I want to pay my rent playing music, so I’m going to have to create my own job… Composers are not just staying in their study, in an academic job. More than ever they are running concert series, record labels, publishing companies, finding ways to engage communities, to build a community around the work… We are working with these composers, we’re telling our friends and we’re starting our own series and organizations and projects and sharing with as many people as possible. We’re getting out of this isolated view of writing and performing contemporary music. This is so much more community-driven, and that is what makes me hopeful about it.”