in: Reviews

November 5, 2017

Worlds Collide with BMV and Yazhi Guo

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Yazhi Guo (file photo)

New faces Rane Moore on clarinet and Piero Guimaraes on percussion joined Boston Musica Viva’s old guard, Ann Bobo on flute, Geoffrey Burleson on piano, Robert Schulz on percussion, Danielle Maddon on violin, and Jan Müller-Szeraws on cello for “Northeast by Far East” at Longy Saturday.

Chinese instrument specialist and soloist Yazhi Guo also appeared as well on the final work of the night, blending traditional Chinese instruments with western orchestral sounds in a unique combination for the Pierrot Ensemble. BMV saw to the Boston premiere of Metal, Stone, Silk, Bamboo (Jin-Shi-Si-Zhu) by Chinese composer Zhou Long and the world premiere of 10 Basho Poems by Bostonian Peter Child.

Rune for flute and percussion by Joyce Mekeel, resurrected from the second ever season of BMV, rested upon Bobo and Schulz, whose delicate interplay, except in one major instance, a true duet collaboration between the distinct voices. With Bobo relegated mostly to a melodic line, Schulz decked himself out in all manner of percussion from nipple gongs to vibraphones to woodblocks. Schulz played on point, lighting up his entire palette with finesse that obviously took years of training to achieve. Bobo sounded quiet and contemplative in contrasting the more colorful and active percussion part. But right here is where the problems started: due to the duet’s scoring, the percussion swallowed the flute almost completely. The large percussion complement readily drew attention away from what should have been a solo flute with percussion accompaniment; one particular moment had the xylophone and flute on the same figure playing together, but the xylophone completely drowned out the flute, leaving the faintest hint of its color behind. All this is not to say the writing itself was bad, rather the problem comes from the instrumentation.

Returning another BMV favorite to the stage, Spike by Scottish composer David Horne, written when Horne studied for his doctorate at Harvard, brought the entire Pierrot Ensemble back. Pittman took some time before the fairly dense piece of music began to disclose some of the Horne’s techniques—especially Schoenberg’s Klangfarben which Horne hinged the work upon. This brief talk was useful even for someone familiar with the techniques and modern writing in general because Horne successfully turned what could be virtuosic solo writing into ensemble techniques. Despite the dense harmonic structure, Horne managed keep our interest, because he never lingered on anything, instead focusing on short cadenzas from Bobo, Maddon, and Schulz. Maddon particularly deserved attention; her solos, structured to all fit on either the G or A strings of her violin, showed her melancholic and longing sound and how it could rise and fall within the sound mass. Other solos and duets also emerged, such as Bobo soloing and Müller-Szeraws and Moore sharing duets with their similarly colored cello and bass clarinet.

The woodwinds extended their ranges with piccolo and bass clarinet respectively, the strings all played with the gamut of techniques both normal and extended, and the piano frequently muted its strings to change its timbre. So why, with all that, did Schulz almost exclusively play marimba and vibraphone, acting as an extension of the piano, rather than utilize the wide variety of possibilities afforded by the percussion? At one point, Schulz bowed crotales [ed. note, this is apparently the fourth r instance recorded on BMInt in three weeks], but this little departure did next to nothing to alter his sound world. Honestly, the choice was baffling given how much attention Horne put on extending all the other instruments’ color palettes. BMV thrived in Horne’s world of intricate and independent development and dense ensemble playing which left no two voices to share the similar material.

Kaleidoscope by William Kraft, timpanist, composer, and assistant conductor in Los Angeles, felt very much like an extension of the previous piece. Emphasis on solos, however, kept the two from sounding exactly the same. Cadenzas for Bobo, Schulz, and Maddon emerged at various intervals. Maddon had the first cadenza, letting her express her mournful and lamenting tone quality that made her sound incredibly personal, more so than in Spike. Kraft relegated Bobo’s flute to a disappointing blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cadenza. Schulz had his moment where he soloed on the bongos and tom-toms, not wide in timbral change but very rhythmically intricate and satisfying, showing Kraft (who is a percussionist) can certainly write for his own instrumental family well. Burleson on piano took on an incredibly thankless role, acting as the glue that held the ensemble together while enjoying only short interruptions and outbursts of soloistic piano writing. The ensemble supporting the soloists held a stasis texture dutifully, occasionally spouting an outburst to rend the texture, occasionally gelling into fuzzy solos that fell back into the texture just as fast as they materialized. Kraft wrote one of the highlights of the evening, a neo-Ivesian controlled sonic collage that shifted focus from one person to another fluidly.

Peter Childs’s 10 Basho Songs premiered that night. Comprising ten short haiku movements all strung together with attaca directions presented a sonic challenge. The entire piece sounded through-composed, which it may very well have been, given how each movement sounded radically different. Childs described set as a merging of concrete techniques and the mysterious elements of Basho haiku into one. Everyone had a chance at some movement to take control of the ensemble and solo, such as Müller-Szeraws near the end in the tenth movement, where the grit he infused into his cello technique came across as extremely forceful and commanding. Bobo short solo on bass flute near the beginning imitating eastern flutes effectively and breathed life into a very esoteric instrument. Burleson also had his own moment, a short solo that punched its way through the group and moved everyone aside to let him play. Overall, the texture rapidly changed, lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute and a half, moving along with no time to spare. Also of note was how Childs played with the blending, forcing everyone to imitate each other’s’ sound precisely, lest the effect entirely disintegrate. True to Pittman’s tradition, BMV played through the newly premiered work twice, once before intermission and once right after.

The true highlight of the evening, Zhou Long’s Metal, Stone, Silk, Bamboo (Jin-Shi-Si-Zhu), saw both Yazhi Guo as soloist and Piero Guimaraes on percussion (supplementing Schulz) join the ensemble. Beforehand, Guo took some time to demonstrate what he brought with him: two dizis (Chinese bamboo flutes), one large and one small, a shun (potato flute similar to an ocarina), and a suona (a cross between an oboe and a trumpet with a very direct sound), of which the last is his performance specialty. This provided context for the Long’s compositional decisions. The first section, “San Xu (Prose-Prelude),” played with both of the dizis. The western quintet supported Guo through the movement, imitating the pitch tendencies and sonic characteristics of the dizis quite well. Bobo had the easiest time with this blend, as her flute matched the sound of the more traditional bamboo flutes with little difficulty. The desire to blend had not stopped Long from exploiting some interesting color possibilities within the western instruments; strange choices such as low piccolo and high bass clarinet playing the same melody proved to create a highly personal sound, echoing the Chinese roots of the soloist instrument. The rest of the BMV never had issues with burying the Guo’s sound (except for the violin on occasion being too loud), something worth noting given how delicate the sound of the dizi and the shun after it would be. The second movement, “Zhang Zu (Middle-Prelude)” featured the shun, as previously mentioned. The shun naturally produced a lot quieter of a sound, and as such the quintet had to do much more work to prevent overpowering it. Long achieved this balance by mostly reducing the accompaniment to the strings and percussion, having the winds also play percussion too in the form of suspended finger cymbals, while Guo serenaded on his shun. Schulz had some moments to blend the vibraphone with the shun, creating an incredibly unique sound that almost resembled amplification of the potato flute, but for the most part everything stayed out of the way of the soloist. Guo haunted as his shun sounded ethereally. The final movement, “Po (Broaching),” brought Guo to his drastically different suona. Now, instead the shun’s delicacy the suona’s powerful and direct timbre demanded a more pointillistic writing from the accompaniment. Guo ended up blowing the BMV out of the water in terms of sound production; Moore on clarinet could only keep up in a few instances where Long set their arpeggios together. The concerto-like final movement took on a comic character, reveling in the broadening palette afforded by the suona, but never seeming out of place with the two preceding movements. Of course, as a result, the accompaniment ramped up its activity, attempting to keep up with the suona, but the soloist really ran the table. Metal, Stone, Silk, Bamboo (Jin-Shi-Si-Zhu) highlighted how great Boston Musica Viva can execute as both the lead ensemble and an accompanimental force.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Some later research done by fellow composer Yanchen Ye made this discovery. Zhou Long has not published the version of Metal, Stone, Silk, Bamboo Yazhi Guo used on the BMV concert. There’s versions for saxophone and Pierrot or dizis and Pierrot, but not for the complement Guo used. It might be that he used the dizi version and and played/improvised from there, but it’s impossible to know for sure right now.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — November 8, 2017 at 11:43 am

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