in: Reviews

September 26, 2017

Diverse Capstone to New Music Summit

by

Lidiya Yankovskaya

Juventas New Music spearheaded the ongoing Boston New Music Festival, holding the New Music Symposium, one of the main events, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sunday. That evening, the ensemble capped off the summit with a concert of its own in Killian Hall. Curated by just-announced-outgoing artistic director/pianist/conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, hosts Orlando Cela on flute, Wolcott Humphrey on clarinet, Neil Godwin on horn, Olga Patramanskaya-Bell on violin, Julia Scott Carey on piano, and Nate Tucker on percussion, joined by a variety of guest performers, rounded the night out with a fantastic array of compositions both in progress and completed. Many composers attended, including, among others, Emerson College’s Scott Wheeler, incoming Artistic Director of Juventas New Music, Oliver Caplan; and poet, Barry Duncan; alongside the composer of upcoming Juventas season highlight Freedom Ride, Dan Shore.

New Village Music by Scott Wheeler, a new orchestration of a pre-existing work for a Pierrot Ensemble to a subset of flute, clarinet, violin, and piano, began with an explosion of activity in the first movement “First Arcadian Fanfare,” referencing the original commissioners, the Arcadian Winds wind quintet. Independent lines from the quartet scattered around, creating the effect of a fanfare with multiple ascensions before the work dove down into a more staid and contemplative B section. A rather fittingly short beginning, the fanfare gave way to the second portion, “Cliff Dance,” via an attaca transition; as Wheeler stated in the program, all movements transitioned in a similar fashion, leading to unending changes in character. The players handled the character changes well, aided by Yankovskaya conducting them through it and never breaking continuity. “Cliff Dance” itself was, as the name implied, dance-like. It forced the members of the group to play attentively to one another, as the strings and winds complement frequently traded chordal accompaniment with the piano, highlighting individual voices. “Cliff Dance” also saw the introduction of more extended techniques to its considerably tonal-centric world, with Cela performing many instances of well executed flutter tongue to close out violently. To transition again, a short reprise of the fanfare, this time titled “Second Arcadian Fanfare,” returned in similar form to the first fanfare, though the B section was considerably slower in this iteration.

“Midnight Pastorale” played heavily with the timbres inherent to this particular instrumentation. Wheeler focused heavily on the chalumeaux register of the clarinet and the low register of the piano with the violin and flute as a pair complementing the low figures, and the result was a very mysterious character the performers achieved with ease due to their inherent musicality. In particular, Patramanskaya-Bell must be mentioned for her delicate and lyrical playing, transforming a solo into a mournful and melancholic ballad. Of course, every instrument had the opportunity to solo in this movement, and everyone played their parts fantastically. “Cliff Dance Reprise and Final Arcadian Fanfare” saw a recontextualization of the material from “Cliff Dance” and a final iteration of the Arcadian Fanfare from the beginning, far more aggressive in nature in this iteration. Curiously, despite the return of the fanfare providing a satisfying conclusion to the work, Wheeler continued with the last section, the imagined song “The Man in a Sycamore Tree.” Far more delicate than the previous parts, the imaginary folk song made use of the extended color palette from each member of the quartet, playing with the timbral qualities that the instruments matched with relative ease. One wonders why this slow folk song imitation is the closer since the “Cliff Dance Reprise and Final Arcadian Fanfare” would have concluded more dramatically.

Claire Chase on flute continued with several solo works, all connected in some fashion to live electronics and tape. Chase is a master of the flute and notoriously difficult bass flute, unrivaled in expressiveness and technical prowess. Felipe Lara’s Meditation and Calligraphy began with the bass flute hooked into a live echo effect on a nearby computer. Inspired by Mongolian calligraphy, the instrument became the sound of a dizi, thanks to the low register of the instrument and the echo effect. Chase’s ability to control the sound and combine it with vocalizations, including singing into the flute, suggests ethnomusicological research. Following the bass flute, Chase returned to the C flute and, rocked out on Luciform by Mario Diaz de Leon. The composer created a tape that connected the flute and electric guitar (maybe with added synthesizers), giving Chase an opportunity to execute highly active and unceasing moving lines. Frequently, however, the tape blended with her live performance, partnering the guitar with the flute and burying the flute in the overpowering electric guitar. When de Leon wisely pared the activity of the tape, Chase stood out from the sound mass and engaged. The tape phased in and out of the lead role, and the most interesting sections of the work came from the tape serving Chase rather than Chase serving the tape. Luciform truly is heavy metal for the flute. Rounding out Chase’s solos were excerpts from Pan, Marcos Balter’s non-sequential 90-minute-work-in-progress for flute and community involvement taken from the story of Pan’s death at Apollo’s hand, set to be premiered in 2018. Chase gave the opening and closing flute solos. The first portrayed Apollo flaying the dying Pan as he cried out in agony, in a series of phonemes screeched into the flute amidst a flurry of active figures. The agonizing conceit worked. The second solo, depicting Pan contemplating his upcoming death, focused far less on avant-garde techniques. Chase engaged created musical cohesion from a single line, rather than splitting her attention into guttural utterances alongside a subservient instrument. The flute echoed with loop for short periods creating mysterious self-accompaniment. Chase showcased her instrument as an inevitable device for new music with electronics.

Oliver Caplan’s Connect All, We All Connect, from the upcoming Juventas New Music CD, introduced a series of works with voice. Caplan’s more tonal style contrasted with the rest of the concert, sounding near neo-Romantic in its use of pitch material. Pianist Carey, horn Godwin, and soprano soloist Kristin Young recalled Benjamin Britten’s famous Serenade. The text, however, became far less about imagery and more about palindrome, in its backwards-forwards structure. Young and Carey drove from tonic center to tonic center, while Godwin responded in kind with short gestures that alluded to and expanded upon the previous soprano line, resulting in a string of melody. Young held introspection close to heart and reflected upon the nature of human connection. Her tour de force needed no flashy melismas—a sign of a true artist.

Opera interjected itself in the form of selections from the upcoming season highlight Freedom Ride by Dan Shore, an opera set in the backdrop of the Freedom Ride protest during the Civil Rights Movement in 1961 Louisiana. Unfortunately for both Juventas and the music community at large, a week and a half prior to the symposium, soprano Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste passed away at a young age, leaving the role of Georgia unfilled (Yankovskaya took some time during her introduction to mention this fact to the audience as well as to dedicate the concert to her). As a result, slight changes had to be made, and soprano Kristin Young returned to the stage as did baritone Robert Honeysucker as the young student Sylvie Davenport and Civil Rights activist Clayton Thomas, respectively, minus Jean-Baptiste as Georgia. The chosen excerpts demanded a lot from the two performers; they needed to convey a wide range of emotions through minimal overt acting. The majority of the selections were recitative, though there might have been a sampling of an aria coming from Young (for lack of printed titles, it shall be referred to as “Tell Me Why?”). Jazz elements poked through in the form of dissonant chords underpinning the dramatic tension between the two lovers-to-be, transmuting back and forth with more consistently tonally-centric harmonies that ordered the two vocalists be mindful of their entrances; many of their entrances were not necessarily in the piano harmonies. Young and Honeysucker engaged the listener with their believable characterizations, especially Young, who did most of the singing. If this selection indicated what’s to come, Freedom Ride is sure to be an emotional powerhouse.

Paring back, violinist Patramanskaya-Bell and mezzo-soprano Britt Brown engaged in some melodrama with Jeremy Rapaport-Stein’s Dreamsongs, with text by Amy Lowell and Rapaport-Stein himself. The richness of Brown’s voice carried the music, with Patramanskaya-Bell providing a mostly detached but necessary accompaniment that never intruded on the vocal line but coalesced each movement. “Music” saw the most direct interplay between the violin and mezzo-soprano, with Brown leading the melodrama and Patramanskaya-Bell providing her thoughts too. Despite the heavily reduced instrumentation and some gaps in note presence, the result never left a desire for more activity. Much of this fact hearkens back to Brown, who acted out a lot of the text and understood the inherent humor and absurdity to the words, which she projected with ease. “Train Husband” heightened this idea, where at several moments the audience burst out laughing in response to Brown’s mixture of acting and text delivery. It is strange for someone to discover the love of her life sitting opposite on the subway; here character and caution parted ways. Patramanskaya-Bell played far more aggressively in this section, though backing off at the right moments to allow Brown to emerge. “Not Being Together” got Patramanskaya-Bell to echo Brown’s melodies with unpitched text, creating a dialogue about the one’s absent lover. Extended techniques ruled this movement, with Brown occasionally dipping into vocal fry, buzzing as Patramanskaya-Bell pulled scratch tone from her violin, frequently using overpressure to grind notes from her strings. At its core, this movement was a wild showpiece for both musicians. Following “Not Being Together,” “Lullaby” dipped into the quiet and contemplative realm that had been up until now unexplored. Brown exclusively sang a melody as Patramanskaya-Bell filled out the accompaniment with quiet, detached quarter notes, reminiscent of a music box. The entirety closed quietly with a short series of harmonics from Patramanskaya-Bell that were both lyrical and brittle, fragile to the touch but able to carry the last remnants of the independent melody.

The winner of the Juventas New Music Call for Scores 2017, Jonathan Newmark’s Secret Atop the Bluff for violin, bass clarinet, and piano, initially looked to be a perplexing ensemble. Taken from a commission for the 2015 Charlotte New Music Festival (which I attended in 2017), the instrumentation, assigned to Newmark from the administration as a challenge to the attending composers, felt initially disconnected and bizarre. The violin blends better with the cello then something as idiosyncratic as the bass clarinet. Strangely enough, the combination sparked interest. Wisely, Newmark reacted against the sound of the traditional piano trio, livening up the sound world by freeing the three individuals. The first section of the single movement work (mirroring a condensed version of the classical symphonic form of Franz Joseph Haydn) enticed a groove out of the bass clarinet, setting up a bed in which all instruments could actively participate and not merely be relegated to background figures. The result: a series of contrasting differently produced sounds that do not match perfectly. Pianist Carey, violinist Patramanskaya-Bell, and bass clarinetist Humphrey made good use of how the material can no longer can be pigeonholed into standard pairings. At moments, the sounds cohered, later the ensemble broke down to small solos for an adagio. As they emerged from a tenuous blend, all of the individuals projected underlying longing. After a short waltz-like scherzo (because all classical symphonic forms have to have music in ¾ that is comical), the allegro took some time to establish the blend once more before reintroducing the groove. The reprise, though, didn’t remain stagnant: each musician brought something new to the repeated material, freshening it up significantly before an explosive coda finished the evening.

Juventas New Music must be commended for starting this new music symposium. They truly are a new music treasure.

NEC graduate student composer Ian Wiese, a new-music aficionado, loves attending and supporting concerts of living composers’ music and the ensembles that champion them. He will soon be having several premieres in the Boston area in the coming months.

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