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New Music, Youth and Discipline at NEC


John Heiss (file photo)
John Heiss (file photo)

New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Ensemble under the direction of John Heiss put the spotlight on young dedicated performers in works of well-knowns Crumb and Schoenberg, as well as on both a faculty and a student composer. Discipline popped right up to the fore: Performing organizations around town take notice.

Three Little Pieces for a Curious Quartet newly composed by NEC student Sonnet Swire was first to get underway. Lasting some ten minutes, the three movement work takes its title from the set’s instrumentation of French horn, trombone, cello and harp. An attention provoking solo cello statement opened and ended “Danuta is not Diana.” The former was Swire’s grandmother’s Polish name that was constantly anglicized as the latter “on everything from registries to birth certificates for her children. The unusual instrumental combination in addition to the unfamiliar writing ways of Swire often puzzled. In the “John Said So,” though, triadic harmonies we all know lovingly appeared, quiet, slow, and at first ever so delicately played by the quartet. A convincing outburst gave way to cadence and “Nonsense March” with oompahs, the strings coming up short on the parade.

The trio of Fanya Wyrick-Flax, flute, Allison Drenkow, cello, and Yuan Zhuang, piano gave an out-and-out rendering Voice of the Whale (Vox Balaenae). George Crumb’s 1971 score “inspired by the singing of the humpback whale,” which he had heard several years earlier, remains an intriguing work. The three woman, wearing black half-masks and nearly hidden from view in the darkened room, upheld the ritualist angle as much as they sustained the vocalises, sea theme, its variations, and the sea-nocturne. Despite the menaces of a slow-moving often sparsely composed score, the youthful trio seized rapt attention through an accomplished, luminescent, color-filled performance. The humpback’s singing at times felt so real.

Returning to the notion of discipline, intermission lasted a standard 15 minutes. The anxiousness and the thought, well my time is important too, that comes with indulgent breaks so many Boston organizations take, were thankfully assuaged, all for the better of listening.

On the downside, but not really unexpected, Wednesday evening’s challenging free concert could draw only a small turnout for the Jordan Hall demonstration of tomorrow’s potential music makers.

Immutable Dreams, a 2007 commission for the New York’s Da Capo Chamber Players of NEC faculty Kati Agócs, is scored for a “Pierrot Lunaire ensemble.” A local group called Hub New Music stepped in, giving a convincing sense of well-preparedness. The quintet of youthful musicians steeped energy galore where needed to fully realize the ferocity and boldness that this composition requires. This three-movement chamber piece took some 15 minutes, most of the way in a dazing shifts of texture and dynamics. Making head and tail of what could be found as purposeful stretched our powers. It might very well have been the aspect of verticality at once extremely dense (clusters of sound) and apparently void of any pattern or external logic for the listener to readily latch onto. Endings did, though, sound like endings, and that in ways was a bit out of character.

To close, Heiss’s NEC Contemporary Ensemble took on Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E Major, Op. 9. Jacob Joyce conducted with clear intention of making sure that all of his 14 players were on the same page of this not-so-easy, turn-of-the century, one-of-a-kind chamber piece. From the start, balance matters loomed, especially from the overpowering two horns. The scherzo almost got up and went.

Depth charges from those low tones of the contrabassoon heartened that side of Schoenberg’s writing. For the lyrical solos, the two violinists, the violist, and cellist each played wondrously expressively, together revealing a real penchant for the emotional bent of the symphony.

A lot went right technically with the performance. It simply was not contoured as a dynamic whole. The intricacies of the intertwining nature of the Chamber Symphony are still to be mastered.

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.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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