in: Reviews

May 10, 2016

Hub New: Coloring Within Lines

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An ideally compact evening of contemporary music was to be had Saturday night from Hub New Music, presented by JP Concerts: a bit more than an hour of works whose surfaces were pleasant but which had depths to explore. All four pieces spoke a harmonic language that would not be unfamiliar to anyone who listens to adventurous popular music. The processes of development were all at least partly minimalist.

Composer Judd Greenstein has an impressive New England educational background: Williams, Yale and Princeton, then a Tanglewood Fellowship. That may sound like an academic composer; however, he also attended the Bang on a Can Summer Institute and is now co-director at New Amsterdam Records and curates the Ecstatic Music Festival, all better indexes of his writing. Of all the pieces on the program, Greenstein’s At the end of a really great day (2008) wore its heart most fully on its sleeve. The title derives from the timing of the death of a beloved friend, but the music projects no tragedy: it is all quiet extroversion. A typical texture has a motoric figure providing a foundation. On top of it is a cyclic melody, a sequence of pitches played within a rhythmic pattern of notes and silence that doesn’t match the melody’s length. Longer lines that also aspire to melody without quite having its rhetorical force float over all. The structural logic behind the work’s 15 minutes is more Sibelius than Beethoven: episodes of dense activity alternate with hushed moments of clarity, the architecture assembled from these fairly coarse blocks and justified by the dramatic impact of their alternation. It’s all quite beautiful and engaging moment to moment, but the design altogether was a bit less convincing, the progress through the quarter-hour sometimes fitful.

Nico Muhly is presumably famous now: his opera Two Boys was performed at the Met in 2013, and he is one of the highest-profile “young” composers writing today. Alas, on this evening his I know where everything is (2007) was odd man out; described by the composer as “a cycle of chords in a pile,” it was a heavy music of grays and browns, with a sense of foreboding. I failed to catch its process: my notes ask “What work is this music doing?” It ended suddenly and without a sense of arrival.

New York/Princeton composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s résumé resembles Greenstein’s: Wesleyan to Yale, then the Aspen Music Festival. Her online biography, a torrent of recent commissions and performances, resists summation; this was the first time I have encountered her music. You Are Free (2015) claims inspiration from Pärt, as was clearly evident. Piano and pitched percussion were added to the Hub ensemble, to provide a rumbling, ringing background to lush lines that were predominantly mournful and yearning. In fact, it felt more like an experiment in taking on the voice of the Estonian composer than like an independent work. But it was a darkly ravishing experiment, to be sure. Like the Muhly, it seemed to stop rather than conclude.

Robert Honstein’s Juno, however, had a sure sense of timing and structure, built as it was from five finely wrought, relatively brief movements that coherently formed a whole. The Boston-based composer wrote Juno in reaction to the infamous winter of 2015, giving it the name of the January blizzard that started the mess. It contrasts his writing music in an isolated New Hampshire setting with his wife’s experience: she remained in Boston to work, eight months pregnant. How Honstein got away with that without having to write a piece with a different classical figure (Clytemnestra, maybe?) is not a question answered by it. The five movements alternate between calm anticipation and reflection and agitation and anxiety. The music was punctuated by violent outbursts from the percussion (played with impressive presence by Maria Finkelmeier), most welcome on a program that otherwise tended toward the cool and the precise. Honstein’s music is precise in its own way, each movement crafted with an end in mind and executed with great attention to detail. Beautiful, thoughtful, emotionally moving and convincing, Juno made for a profound experience.

Hub New Music (file photo)

Hub New Music (file photo)

All of these works were given impeccable and impassioned performances from the Hub players (Michael Avitabile, flute; David Dziardziel, clarinet; Orin Alan Laursen, violin; Allison Drenkow, cello), along with guest artists Finkelmeier and Ashley Zhang (piano). They play with a single mind but without sacrificing personality: Dziardziel’s playing is fluid and acrobatic without strain (even when playing the E-flat clarinet); Avitabile’s flute sounded warm and vocal, showing an edge only when appropriate. Laursen’s violin is understated and thoughtful; and Drenkow’s cello has great reserves of power and resonance, assisted by the acoustic in St. John’s Episcopal in Jamaica Plain, which gave the lower end of the ensemble a boost.

The only complaint I might level at the group is that the rubric for the concert, “Pushing Boundaries,” was almost exactly backward: these pieces, by embracing a rich and inviting harmonic language and the on-the-surface mechanics of minimalism, seem self-consciously working to pull the listener into their world. This is a reversal from the prickly isolationism of modernism, and on the evidence here it continues to hold promise as a way forward for composed music in the 21st century.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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