Capturing the essence of live performance in virtual settings has been a foremost concern for many of us over the past few months. Juventas New Music Ensemble designed its season finale “Alone Together” with the current human assemblage restrictions in mind, attempting both to simulate the experience of live performance and to capitalize on the unique potentialities of a digital performance space. Both prongs of this offering probed critical topics for contemporary concerts. However, these same prongs often risked becoming impediments.
Saturday’s first half featured a series of small chamber works by living composers. It carried off a surprising degree of homogeneity throughout, and the intermission provided a welcome relief. The litany of hyper-tonality and steady pulse, without any significant interruption from applause or stage changes, generated an unintentional, albeit unconvincing, minimalist effect. It seems as if each composer sought to sooth an audience: a motive sound enough when considering the sustained strife that has been globally thematic for the past several months; but it disappointed that each offering soothed so similarly. Further, one does not immediately expect an evening of saccharine consolation from Juventas. Their concerts tend to challenge the curious listener or ponder more difficult themes. Hoping for a simulation of a live music experience, a revival of what we have been deprived of, coddling offered a questionable strategy.
Despite the shortcomings in compositional diversity, each piece was performed with precision and enthusiasm. Each piece involved a trio of some sort: beginning with a traditional piano trio configuration and subsequently replacing one or the other string instruments with clarinet. Pianist, Julia Scott Carey’s constant participation and her execution of disproportionately challenging parts marked the most impressive aspect of the first half.
The second half featured songs from three composers, beginning with Aaron Copland; the musical textures and American subjects continued from the first half. Yet, the presence of text did help to provide a gratifying focal point and a sense of increased variety. The subsequent two works seemed inspired by the Copland aria, but differed quite pleasantly in their responses to the model. Emma Wine’s multi-movement “Gold Against the Gloom” highlighted the evening. Wine set poetry by Sara Teasdale, in four short movements, musically witnessing a metamorphosis from youth to agedness. Traversing the seasons of life, the poetry and music testify to wonder, vitality, sagacity, and nostalgia through profound simplicity, and, considering its 19th -century poetry, provide surprising relevance. Wine’s setting effectively delivers the timeless sentiments of the poetry into 21st-century reality, recalling messages well-worth the summoning.
After the saturation in mellowness that constituted the first half, the final song “Alone Together” totally nauseated. Clearly designed as an anthem of solidarity in the time of pandemic, the strophic waves of cinema-style melody and sentimental poetry inspired not the courage, endurance, and hope that it sought to convey, but rather, became a physical gag. Audiences are craving the elements of live performance with which they are familiar. We are not looking for reasons to remind ourselves of the restrictions that we face; we are certainly familiar with those by now. We want genuine music, not commodified patriotism. A statement of strength in this time of struggle requires us to express, to perform — despite the obstacles — as legitimately as possible, with as much artistic integrity as ever before.
A zoom-based pre-concert talk most fully took advantage of the virtual format. The featured composers [aside from Copland] participated in this conversation from all around the world. It is doubtful that such a gathering would have been possible in an analogue concert space. The talk was conducted gracefully and was well-attended. Helpful explanations of the upcoming compositions, in the composers’ own words, and useful links to the vibrant digital program [which includes the song texts] were supplied here, together enabling a pleasantly immersive concert experience. Also celebrating the special potentials of the live-stream format, a lively chat thread ran throughout the show, featuring a full-audience conversation both during the music and between concert segments.
It was exhilarating to see the Juventas ensemble playing together corporeally—beautifully recorded, both sonically and visually. Multiple high-definition cameras captured the performance as it took place in the Futura Studios of Roslindale. The results from the professional audio technicians and their sophisticated microphones will only be limited by the speaker quality on his listening/watching device. The musicians all seemed in top form, and, considering the absence of a visible audience, they played with commendable energy. Soprano, Kelly Hollis particularly impressed. Crystalline articulation and adroit internalizations of each text informed her successful deliveries of convincing musical statements throughout the entire second half.
We appreciate any effort to connect isolated audience members with a live-concert experience, though this particular program left room for improvement. Watching the play and engaging in conversations with the composers reinforced our convictions that performance and composition must continue. I look forward to experience more, novel curatorial attempts at performing virtually, and ultimately feel confident that there is no risk of our traditional concert-going behavior’s extinction. The well-attended show testified palpably to a ubiquitous desire for a live, communal experience.
Though it will not convey quite the same satisfactions as watching the live stream, the video recording of the performance is HERE. In making the show completely free and open to the public, Juventas made a gesture of astounding generosity at a time when performing artists face precarious financial situations. Naturally, the ensemble would greatly appreciate donations at this time, and I encourage all to reward the group’s endearing display of conviction and perseverance.
I now recognize that this review made several unfounded claims about the Juventas Ensemble’s audience, whose composition I had several misconceptions about, and which clearly displayed a positive, enthusiastic response to this concert. I should have familiarized myself better with Juventas’ mission statement before leaping into my review. Further, I had not previously realized how many obstacles needed to be overcome by the ensemble in making this performance possible while obeying the current government-imposed social distancing requirements. Several of my previous complaints pertained to what were really adroit navigations of extreme hurdles.
The comments from other spectators on the YouTube platform suggest that this program resonated sympathetically for most. Apparently, I feel differently than many Bostonians about our communal behavior at this time. The audience made it well known that “Alone Together” made a winning impression, that it served as a musical beacon of hope and inspiration in the darkness of uncertainty. Perhaps I have something to learn from my community’s reaction: surely, we have all, together, felt somewhat alone lately. I am still learning how best to register an audience’s response without sharing an actual space together, something all reviewers have been grappling with extensively when reacting to live-stream events. I now regret my hasty judgement and excessive aggression.