in: Reviews

February 4, 2018

Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theater Works

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Alea III, the Boston University contemporary music ensemble-in-residence, continued its 40th season last Wednesday at New England Conservatory’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theater. Utilizing the brand new space’s high-tech lighting and sound systems, conductor Efstratios Minakakis lead a mixture of area professionals and New England Conservatory students in an eclectic night of response works and soundscapes. Not content with only the music, the concert, titled “Project ‘DOUBLES,’” incorporated tape playback, live electronics, lighting changes, darkness, acting, and spatialization to envelop the audience in a true multisensory experience.

The show began with an unusual choice of programming for a new music ensemble: the species counterpoint music of Orlando di Lasso. As described in the opening of the program, Minakakis and several of his composition students “[engaged] with the idea of dialogue and imitation between independent voices,” leading to the creation of a series of vocal duets in response to the nature of di Lasso’s florid counterpoint. The first half contained three selections from di Lasso’s Magnum Opus Musicum interspersed between other newly composed pieces; this reviewer felt it wise to review the di Lasso movements at once, given their extremely short length. Tenor Richard Rivale and baritone Matthew O’Donnell opened with Qui vult venire, the shortest movement of all of them; soprano Maria Kerlee and mezzo-soprano Pauline Tan followed with Beatus Vir and, finally, Beatus homo. Like much of the contrapuntal music of the period, the harmonic scheme is quite clear, and the voice leading works well, especially in Beatus homo. Each performer sang nicely, and Tan deserves special mention, given the extremes in range for the female voice she endured in performance.

The newly composed Kurz ist der Schmerz by NEC undergraduate student Nhyta Taguchi, started spacious and quiet, growing over time to become an interwoven collection of syllables. Taguchi broke down each word into its component vowels and consonants, making sure to have passages which emphasized every possibility. The music ventured far into atonal territory for the vocalists, making the material both difficult to sing but highly rewarding to hear in practice. The sopranos Lisa Lynch and Nina Dante navigated the harmonically dense work accurately (with the help of a tuning fork and duet conducting).

From Rise to Set by NEC graduate diploma student Tianyi Wang intriguingly utilized lighting. Depicting the full length of a day, the two vocalists represent both a person (soprano Rush Dorsett) and a shadow (baritone O’Donnell), through imitation in nature. The composer’s text highlights this dichotomy: “My shadow,/This shadow of mine./A fiend;/An angel.” The use of lighting cemented the moving hours of the day concretely.

Worcester State University professor Jason Sabol wrote Desire in response to Responsorio delle Tenebre by Salvatore Sciarrino, focusing on emphasizing the longing for a better life via quarter tones, supplanting a traditional twelve-tone equally tempered scale with freer harmony. With text by Matthew Arnold, Sabol created a vocal duet that sounds as though it were one part. The balance between tenor Sabol and soprano Lynch favored Sabol, as Lynch added harmony for depth, though on occasion the two became dialogued. Sabol has quite a presence with his voice; he is both declarative and powerful but never overdone. Mourning and hopeful, Desire is a strong achievement for microtonal vocal duets.

So blossom the dream orchards aflame by NEC undergraduate student Joshua Mastel made the most of the technology available that evening. Quite present, and effective, soprano Dorsett and baritone O’Donnell were yet only half of the show. Over in the back of the stage area, Mastel and NEC professor John Malia manned a laptop and mixing board as Dorsett and O’Donnell’s singing fed into a MaxMSP patch. There, the laptop combined the live performance with tape and used several speakers in the hall to spatialize the music into a fully dimensional soundscape. The vocalists also moved around the hall, spatializing what the audience could hear from them in choreographed slow motion, and even played several pieces of percussion such as tam-tams and crotales hung on racks. Illumination dimmed and brightened before a final cut to black as another performer off-stage hit a bass drum to signify the final fall. It was something to behold. Perhaps it was a bit too much, though. Though the formidable electronic manipulations sometimes overshadowed the performers, there was much to reward.

A true solo for soprano Dante, Efstratios Minakakis’s Aggeloi III sought to create a bewildered and frantic messenger telling the story of the final death of Oedipus, the tragic hero of Sophocles’s trio of plays on the king who kills his father and sleeps with his mother, as adapted from Oedipus at Colonus. Dante acted the solo convincingly, always out of breath and seemingly barely able to keep control of her franticness. Moving left to right across the stage, Dante weaved each part of the melodic fragments with ease into a truly polyphonic structure, realizing a compositional feat.

Playing in complete darkness, violinist and NEC Contemporary Improvisation professor Eden MacAdam-Somer NEC Contemporary as she shredded her violin in quick bursts of speed, muttering the question “If fear is not the natural state, what is the natural state?” It reminded this reviewer heavily of Valentine by Jacob Druckman, substituting violin for the bass and removing mallets on the strings from the equation entirely. McAdam Somer played her own Fear is not the Natural State to great effect as a, effective if slightly derivative a new music showpiece.

Speaking a lot to the nature of the harmonic content of the evening, NEC theory professor Bert Van Herck’s Acquainted with the Night sounded the most consonant of all the compositions (save for the Orlando di Lasso vocal motets). Van Herck seemingly took influences from jazz composers, the music having a slight swing in both the prepared piano and the virtuosic bass clarinet parts. Clarinetist Barret Ham deserved tons of praise for the performance of the extremely active and disjunct bass clarinet part. Rivale on piano and soprano Dante deserved admiration too, though the attention clearly was on Ham (Van Herck described the genesis for this piece being the death of amateur clarinetist Jan Kennard). Everything felt reactive to the text, appropriate for the setting.

Student Life Center, home to new PSBB Theater (Peter Vanderwalker photo)

Lonesingness by Zesses Siglias focused on uniting vocalist and ensemble as one unit. An unusual selection of soprano, bass flute, and bass, Siglias created a sound world where the bass flute lead the remaining members of the trio. Flutist Wei Zhao deserves credit for her leading the group. Soprano Dante and bassist Ross Wightman serving as extremes to the bass flute. Everything sounded natural and idiomatic, with the only exception being the extremely high register bass playing that popped up on occasion; given how the notes never changed much for the bass part, acting more as an element to the texture rather than a lead voice, it did not seem to bother Wightman that much.

The closer, Responsorio delle Tenebre by Salvatore Sciarrino demanded the largest ensemble: Lynch on soprano, Sabol, Rivale, and Sullivan Hart on tenor, O’Donnell on baritone, and Kyle Bejnerowicz on bass. Conducted by Minakakis, the ensemble navigated its way through a dichotomy of Dorian-based plainchant and free microtonally inflected responses. The stark contrast between the rigid and structured plainchant and the glissando-laden, microtonal, and coloristic responses drove the piece, with each member of the ensemble being utilized to fullest potential (save for Lynch, who acted as an octave extension for Sabol on Tenor I). Most members also became cantor soloists in the free sections, mostly falling on Sabol, Hart, and O’Donnell to start the sections while the others reacted in kind. A microcosm of the t entire evening, it ended the proceedings in a fine summation.

Despite being rudimentary in aesthetics, the decidedly no-frills Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theater, having all the requisite exposed scaffolding for lights and surround sound, proved its excellence for small events where the performance is something of a larger happening.

Alea III nailed the generations of responses. Here’s hoping something similar happens again from them shortly. These themed concerts prove to be among the most interesting in the new music scene.

Ian Wiese is a graduate student composer at New England Conservatory studying under Michael Gandolfi. Voices Across Time. Several composers on the evening are either his colleagues or professors.

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