Before the music began at Monday’s NEC Composers’ Series’ Arthur Berger Memorial Concert at Jordan Hall, vice president Tom Novak made make a major announcement: in honor of NEC’s own (since 1965), teacher, composer, and conductor, Malcolm Peyton, a massive donation from one of his relatives would allow for the creation of the Malcolm Peyton Composer-in-Residence Fund to enable NEC to bring in guest composers for week-long residencies, adding to the NEC experience for the student composers.
The continuing series, curated by Peyton, honors the legacy of Arthur Berger, who taught at New England Conservatory for many years; Berger’s widow Ellen Berger created The Arthur Berger Memorial Concert Fund, which funds these concerts, back in July 2007.
In darkness, Efstratios “Stratis” Minakakis effectively opened the evening with the premiere of Contrafactum. Alto saxophone David Stevens and horn Reese Williams played quiet but charged textures, interweaving the timbres of each other’s instruments into soft bands that climaxed in active outbursts. The two players felt out of time, floating in space while matching each other and shifting focus from one instrument to another. The outbursts, packed with active lines that shattered the intense, unending stasis, felt most welcome, as everything felt rather restless and intense throughout.
Concert organizer Peyton used the services of the fantastic Monadnock String Quartet (Gabriela Diaz and Charles Dimmick, violin; Sam Kelder, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello) to perform the revised version of his String Quartet No. 2. It was great that the ensemble had played together for years, since the work prided itself on imitation and development of small motifs in cycles. All of the odd number movements derived their melodies and fragments from the first movement Prelude, which made the quartet gel together over time. The movements as a unit showcased Peyton’s austerity and attention to detail, as all the material felt like it belonged together and was realized well by the intensely focused members of the quartet. Angular dissonance gave way to breathy fragments of less dissonant but still crunchy harmonies, all coolly performed by the ensemble as though these drastic changes were basic. The only slight issue this reviewer took with the composition is how it felt as though the final movement trailed off rather than properly ended, a run-on sentence drifting off incomplete.
A highly dense and pointillistic piece straight out of the mid-century maximal school, the first movement of Berger’s Septet presented quite a challenge for NEC students Hunter O’Brian on flute, Barret Ham on clarinet, Ryan Turano on bassoon, Sophie Wang on violin, Jing Peng on viola, Amanda Chi on cello, and Ryan Jung on piano under student conductor Daniel Cho’s baton. Reminiscent of Webern and Boulez, “I. Leggiero” was intricate but not square, sparse and focused on the timbre of each instrument but not obsessively soloistic. Conductor Cho looked comfortable with this quite monumental task, and all the performers realized Berger’s chamber masterwork with deep reverence.
Michael Gandolfi’s virtuosic flute solo Geppetto’s Workshop expands upon the original, non-Disney story of Pinocchio, a dark but lighthearted take on the classic wooden boy whose nose grows when he lies. Visiting flutist Brook Ferguson performed this monstrously difficult but buoyant and playful solo supported by Susan Langlas Grace on piano, who seemed to have little difficulty with the monumental accompaniment. In some ways, it would be more prudent to call the workshop a factory; both musicians had parts that would make any subpar performers’ head spin and fingers crack. Ferguson and Langlas Grace made it all appear easy, adding wit and charm to an admittedly already witty and bright but still somewhat sinister interpretation of the story.
Kati Agocs’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano rounded out the show. Highly specific throughout (the tempo markings are printed as part of the movement names) and presented as connected movements, Agocs’s lush and neo-Romantic writing felt like a true return to form with the piano trio, the piano (Liya Nigmati) carrying the majority load while the violin and cello (Yoonhee Lee and NEC librarian Jason Coleman respectively) provided accompaniment and emphasized certain gestures. The trio was decidedly the most tonal composition of the evening, developing throughout a descending D minor bassline similar to the famous “lament bass” of yore. Tinged with slight dissonance, the rhapsodic piece tested Lee, Coleman, and Nigmati, but everyone shined through, and everyone had a chance interpret some unique addition to the sound world. Fittingly, Minakakis started the concert with the most experimental and Agocs ended with the most traditional.
The evening showed that the NEC composition faculty’s continuing innovativeness over a wide breadth of styles. I feel quite honored to study with some of these fine composers.