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Heiss’s Earthly and Unearthly Delights


John Heiss (file photo)

“To put it simply, these concerts combine things I like and things [the players] like,” composer-flutist-teacher John Heiss indicated from his perch in Jordan Hall, head-on with the stage on Monday night. Heiss picked New England Conservatory student performers and pieces in order to curate a gut-wrenching night of music.

Composer-performer-writer Ian Wiese, is no stranger to BMInt readers. He studies composition under Michael Gandolfi at NEC. Although his piece premiered on Monday with Barret Ham (clarinet), Nicholas Hooks (bassoon), Reese Williams (French horn), Jacob Mason (piano), Daniel Cho (violin), Abraham Martin Fernandez (viola), Alexander Fowler (cello), and Thomas Kociela (conductor), he first conceived Contracfact, septet after Purcell (2017) as a competition entry. “The St. Andrews New Music Ensemble ran a competition a few months ago looking for something new for their Responses concert,” Wiese explained. Their concert included both George Benjamin’s arrangement of Purcell’s Fantasia No. 7 for Four Viols and Stravinsky’s Septet. The ensemble tasked competitors with responding to either composer. Wiese chose both. After listening to Purcell’s Fantasia, Wiese wrote, “The thought occurred to me: this Fantasia could be jazz if it swung and was brought up about 40 clicks. So, I combined my response to Purcell with a response to Stravinsky in the form of his septet instrumentation.”

Wiese mixed the best of Baroque counterpoint with Charlie Parker’s swing. The outer sections evoked Purcell but utilized a blues scale, playful and interesting in its approach. Perhaps the most convincing section came in the middle, a lengthy break which contained improvisational solos. Wiese transformed the cello into a walking double bass and provided the piano part with comp chords. Each instrument mimicked a jazz ensemble, classical violin transforming into fiddle, French horn into muted trumpet, bassoon and clarinet into saxophone. Wiese explained that each solo was determined during rehearsals – whatever sounded best made the cut. In this case, it happened to be in the form of an improvisational dialogue between violin and clarinet for a good majority of the section. The piano solo, however, was cut from a different cloth, through composed from the conceiving of the piece. “This is how I would improvise,” Wiese noted, which rung true — much like his other scores — the piano solo looked inward slightly more but exhibited tone clusters, tight harmonies, and an expansion of the previous comped chords.

Giacinto Scelsi’s Okanagon (1984) featured purple and gold lights that shone on a white screen, revealing the darkened silhouettes of the instruments along with their rightful players (Ross Wightman on double bass, Hope Wilk on harp, and Alexander Garde on percussion). Although Scelsi was famous for restricting the way an instrument was played, he also limits pitch here, restraining each instrument to the very lowest registers available and preparing the harp in some way. “Okanagon is to be understood as a rite, or, if you choose, as the heartbeat of the Earth,” Scelsi wrote. On first impression, the stagnantly marked beats resembled a tacit, marking time between each richly-resonated clang. While beautiful in concept, it is ferociously dark, resembling Gagaku, Japanese Imperial Court music. The middle section transitions almost exclusively to each instrument being hit like a drum, adding liveliness to a heavy-gutted idea before switching back to its original intention. Since the harp is prepared, the echo born from the tapping of the instrument is particularly inhuman. This performance transcended the earthly heartbeat that was proposed with Wilk’s dusky, rattling tones.

Jan Bach’s Laudes (1976) typically runs for four movements, complete with Reveille, Scherzo, Cantilena, and Volta. However, due to constricted scheduling, Volta was omitted, and the ensemble instead did Cantilena Scherzo Reveille. Having heard it live once before, I was skeptical about this combination at first, but the regal nature of the ending of Reveille led to a surprisingly convincing finale. The beginning, which is already so expansive, resembled the start of a final movement to an Ives quartet with the call of nature looming. Elmer Churampi Mucha, and Ben Jones (trumpets), Hajime Goto (French horn), Michael Fox (trombone), and David M. Nelson (tuba) delivered it with spirit and determination, providing moments of both swing and pure ferocity.

The Carr Consort with Holly Druckman at the stand followed with Ives’s Psalm 67. Heiss noted that it was said to have been written in 1894, but there are accounts that suggest an even earlier manuscript. Ives would have been between 16 and 19 when he wrote it. If it was the earlier, this would easily fall into the earliest account of bitonality, demonstrating a c major tonality at the same time as a g minor tonality. If he had written this during his 19th year, it would have happened during his first year at Yale University with Horatio Parker. However, considering that Ives spent much of his time listening to the church choir across the road from his house, combined with the fact that his father very enthusiastically trained him to practice composing based upon the sounds around him (an off-tune church choir, bells ringing and echoing on top of each other endlessly), it could have very possibly been earlier than 19. Even his sketches that are dated include relatively arbitrary dates.

By far the earliest work we heard by about 300 years, Gesualdo’s Tenebrae factae sunt (There was darkness when the Jews had set Jesus upon the cross) came from 1611. Many argue that the Renaissance period is by far closest to contemporary music. Heiss agrees, waxing poetically, “Gesualdo writes progressions and harmonies that would not happen for another three-hundred years.” Performed again by the Carr Consort (with Druckman at the helm), it did not feel a single bit out of place, particularly next to the Ives. In fact, it melded into the proceedings seamlessly, capturing an expressive anguish that very much of the concert employed. Expressively and emotionally, the Carr Consort sang both Ives and Gesualdo with a fervor that connected the two distant composers as brothers.

Druckman conducted her grandfather Jacob Druckman’s (1962) Dark Upon the Harp (Six Psalms). The psalms fit baritone Tyler Bouque’s voice gorgeously, and though Heiss noted that the brass and percussion ensemble was supposed to sit a few feet behind (the only mistake of the night), impeccable enunciation and emotional phrasing followed regardless. Psalm 30, “Thou didn’t turn for me my mourning into dancing,” captured a particular ecstasy, the interpretation from the ensemble imaginative and visceral in comparison to Bouque’s expansive solo. Druckman’s inflective and personal interpretation combined her own past with beautiful intention. The moment felt extremely special, and it was clear that she had completely internalized grandfather’s Psalms.

Heiss’s collection emotionally celebrated the past, the life of the earth, and a religious death—three of the richest concepts built into sound.

Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.

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