With a concert that dazzled the imagination and challenged orthodoxies, Juventas New Music last Wednesday brought members of 10 local ensembles to the Oberon to launch a yearlong run-up to a Boston New Music Festival, to be held next autumn. Indeed, the music is so new that more than half of what was presented had been composed in 2016.
Juventas’s Artistic director Lidiya Yankovskaya explained that with Boston being a hotbed for the creation of new music, the time had come to give it a proper showcase. “There are more than 35 ensembles in the Boston area committed to performing contemporary music,” she told a packed house, “but many of them are not even aware of the others or know what they are doing.” Juventas wants to remedy that by bringing together as many as possible for the festival,” which is expected to run over the course of a week.
The kickoff concert provided a broad sampling of what the festival will present. At one end of the spectrum was the deeply moving “Blood Rubies” aria from Rev 23, composed by Julian Wachner for soprano (an impressive Colleen Daly) and chamber orchestra. It was performed with richness and warmth by the Friends of Madame Whitesnake and Juventas New Music, with librettist Cerise Jacobs in attendance. Lidiyia Yankovskaya conducted, spinning a web of dark sounds and taking listeners with her.
At the other end is the weirdly provocative “Untitled”, during which composer Lou Bunk for several minutes drew a bow across a long piece of Styrofoam to create sounds akin to rumbling stomachs or chatting whales. Calling his instrument the Styrofoam-O-phone, Bunk gives new meaning to “cutting edge,” given that the sawing of his bow eroded several chunks from his instrument while he played. While the Styrofoam-O-phone vividly celebrates the exhilarating openness of new music to all comers, it also veered toward spoof.
An ensemble piece titled “Qualia” composed by Wesley Troeger was earnestly performed by a quintet named Alea III. It had its admirers, who applauded loudly for David Stevens, saxophone, Barrett Ham, clarinet, Harrison Honor, percussion, Leonid Plashinov, viola, and Clare Bradford, cello. As the players generated squeaks, tapped their bows on their strings, stroked their instruments, and produced sudden percussive bursts, conductor Holly Choe gracefully kept time.
A piano solo by Scottish composer Judith Weir titled “The Art of Touching the Keyboard” was performed by Donald Berman, who touched his keyboard artfully with a series of discordant chords insistently followed by dozens of dramatic pauses. When the music failed to engage, the restrained use of the sustaining pedal could be admired. It was hard to sense where the piece was going, but therein perhaps lies the tantalization of new music.
With 10 ensembles offering their work, the most memorable came from Floating Tower buoyed by Juventas New Music. It was the New England premiere of The Drumf and the Rheinmaidens by Matti Kovler. It offered Wagner’s rheinmaidens in a Trumpian universe where a dwarf named The Drumf has newly stolen the rheingold. The maidens, Melania (Ariadne Grief), Marla (Sophie Delphis), and Ivana (Casey Keenan), bewail its loss in full operatic gusto, with Marla and Ivana sporting in mermaid-like tails and bustiers enhanced with vast cones.
Melania, fearful that she will soon age out as a wife, sings a surprising heartfelt aria listing all the things she likes about being espoused to The Drumf, while lamenting that no one knows how difficult her life has been. Sadly the lyrics were mostly lost to Oberon’s acoustics. Headmikes appeared not to be working.
The piece could be dismissed as adolescent wit suitable for this adolescent election season were it not for the striking music. Kovler draws as readily from Sondheim as from Wagner, but melds those two its own. With no shortage of winks and nods, he has created something several cuts above pastiche. He appears to be contemplating the fork in the road that divides opera from musical theater. But in the few minutes spent with his Drumf it would seem that that he is not averse to looking for ways to blend the two. Someone to watch—which, ultimately, is the point of new music festivals.
(Spoiler alert: the Drumf has hidden the rheingold in his golden wig.)
Aliana de la Guardia, soprano, and Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone, of Dirty Paloma tried heroically to coax emotion from the long wistful notes of Marti Epstein’s The Origin of the Human Heart. Kadence Arts: Times Two Series was represented by Maria Finkelmeier, marimba and Robert Honstein, piano, performing his Patter, which echoes a delicate rain falling on a well-tuned roof. Mike Avitabile, flute, and Matt Sharrock, percussion, looked as though they were having fun producing breathy notes and sudden dings in already by Daniel T. Lewis. Sharrock returned with electric pickups on his marimba sticks to join Amy Advocat on clarinet as Transient Canvas to perform Peter Van Zandt Lane’s dulcet Energy Bubblebath.
Juventas New Music returned to close the concert with Adrenaline by Alex Williams, a lovely and lively piece being given its New England premiere. The music was accompanied by aerialist Lauren Breunig, who languorously twisted and floated above the heads of the audience. Her elegance matched that of the score, with its Stravinsky-like moments filled with expectation that was taken aloft on a lyrical flute. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya explained that this was but one of three movements for small orchestra and aerialist and that the complete work will be featured at the Boston New Music Festival. Providing some of the sweetest sounds of a night when sweetness was not always a goal were Juventas players Ona Jonaityte, flute, Celine Ferro, clarinet, Olga Patramanskaya, violin, Drew Ricciardi, viola, Mike Dahlberg, cello, Isabella Dawis, piano and Nate Tucker, percussion.
Kickoff it might have been, but Juventas ran up a big score in a night of curious and frequent surprise.
Stephen Landrigan is a former print journalist and concert presenter.