Hub New Music debuted at Jordan Hall Sunday night with a concert dedicated to one composer, Kati Agócs. For someone who was new to Agócs, the evening was nearly ideal: short enough (about an hour, without intermission) that fatigue never set in, and consisting of stunningly varied works that clearly from a single personality. [BMint’s introductory article is here.]
Agócs has been on the NEC Composition faculty since 2008, and Hub New Music is in its second full year of concertizing. The concert carried a paradoxical title, “Strength in Fragility”, which was misleading: “fragility” is not a term I think applied to this music, which even in its quietest moments displayed an unshakeable emotional core. It is often delicate and hushed, but never brittle or unstable.
Two works that featured the entire (or nearly the entire) Hub ensemble bookended the proceedings: the opener, Crystallography (2013), for Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano) with percussion and soprano, and the closer, Immutable Dreams (2007), for Pierrot ensemble alone. The intervening works had smaller and more unusual instrumentation: “John Riley”, a movement for solo harp; Saint Elizabeth Bells for cimbalom and cello; and Hyacinth Curl (2016, and a world premiere) for soprano, mezzo-soprano and handbells.The larger instrumental works made the greatest impression.
Crystallography set inscrutable texts drawn from the language of geology and rhetoric by the Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök. The poems, which selected carried the names of gems, were not intended to make semantic sense. For example, “Ruby” reads, in its entirety: “alizarine albedeo/oriflamme, orchestrina/oxyacetylene”. A “palindrome” according to the composer, it did not easily reveal the reversals one would expect, but it did possess a clear arch-like structure, with textures that increase and then decrease in density, and with a similar dramatic gradient, with a peaking perceptibly at the center. Agócs preserves remarkable clarity in her music despite the constant, complex layering was the preferred mode of development on display in these pieces. In Crystallography the percussion (played by Hub’s Maria Finklemeyer) set up beats that underpinned the long melodies in the soprano, rhythmic cells that shifted just often enough to keep the thoughtful listener on edge. Those melodies are picked up, modified and then transformed by the instruments, developing through accretion, repetition and deformation. The work remains a bit distant from the listener, a beautiful object observed at arm’s length. Guest artist Adrienne Arditti rendered the texts with a rich soprano and generous vibrato, italicizing the shifting vowels of the poems and giving the texts an aesthetic that the words themselves lacked. However, she missed the potential of the clashing consonants (“oblique optics”, “oriental nachtmusik”); the performance as a whole tended to sound soft-edged and blurry.
Immutable Dreams closed the concert with an indelible impression. Muscular and direct, it comprised three intense and strongly contrasted movements. “I feel the air of other planets…”, a discursive study in color and articulation beggars description: my notes say things like “shapes and rising calls”, “folding/unfolding shafts of light”, “fallings and cascades.” “Microconcerto (in Memoriam György Ligeti)”, only “micro” in its relative brevity, featured authoritative playing from Hub pianist Ashley Zhang. She realized the wide-ranging textures from cool soliloquy to crashing clusters with a visceral force that never turned harsh or ugly. This set up the essay in extremities of tone that defined the final movement, “Husks”, that culminated in a manic, occasionally shrieking race to the end. This experience lingered well after the concert ended.
The middle pieces were less ambitious but no less well executed: Saint Elizabeth Bells conjured up a hallucinatory world of overtones, musical material derived from church bells near the hospital where father lay dying in 2011. The peculiar richness of the cimbalom (played by Nicholas Tolle) generated layers of harmonic haze within which Hub’s Allison Drenkow’s cello sang with lyric melancholy. “John Riley”, a movement from a work for solo harp called Every Lover is a Warrior, the slightest piece on the program, freely adapted an Appalachian song that cycled prettily through a number of decorative variations. Guest artist Ina Zdorovetchi, the coordinator of the Boston Conservatory harp program, played it with an elegant and relaxed virtuosity.
Before the premier of Hyacinth Curl, Agócs spoke of her desire to write a work that moved away from her predilection for complexity. Two voices, soprano and mezzo-soprano sing a text that Agócs derived from a Farsi ghazal (a sonnet-like poem), punctuated here and there by handbells played by the vocalists themselves. With only two voices the piece cannot engage in the dense layering that characterizes Agócs textures elsewhere. Instead we hear a constant intertwining of melodies recognizable as Agócs’s singing lines that are rich and occasionally angular. Subtle expression thus comes to a heated text that describes a “night of Power”, filled with “Beauty’s divan” and “ambrosial perfume” and “a chalice of the red wine of dawn-tide,” ending with the poet turning to worship the face of his beloved as the bells ring over and over. Arditti and Emily Harmon (another guest joining Hub for this concert) blended beautifully, achieving a restrained but effective aesthetic seduction.
Having first worked together in a classroom a couple of years ago, the composer and ensemble made an immediate connection; the performers displayed deep affinity for the music. If I have not singled out the remaining members of Hub New Music (Michael Avitabile, flute; David Dziardziel, clarinet; and Orin Alan Laursen, violin), it is because the ensemble plays as a single, sensitive organism that draws more attention to the music than to itself. Both Crystallography and Immutable Dreams works were conducted unfussily by guest David Yi, who must have had some hand in creating the two very different sound environments generated by similar instrumental forces.
On this evening’s evidence, Agócs possesses a distinct voice that is challenging without being elusive. She invites the listener without condescension. Her self-contained compositions make their impression quickly. In their brevity and variety they suggest a composer still seeking and discovering; a certain restlessness hints at more evolution to come. As it happened, the evening doubled as an informal release party for Agócs first CD, a disc of orchestral works recorded by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project which contains her largest work to date, The Debrecen Passion. I look forward to hearing what she does with a large ensemble, and to things to come.