IN: Reviews

A Musical DNA Test


At the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, Composer/director Oliver Caplan described how Juventas New Music Ensemble’s “Source Code” connected five composers to their heritages, spanning back multiple generations, with roots going leading to Italy, Ireland, Iran, Mexico, and America through Negro Spirituals. Saturday’s show was simulcast on YouTube for those who did not want to attend in-person (which is how this reviewer enjoyed the concert).

Susan Botti’s 2 Italian Folk Songs for soprano and string quartet started the evening with a comfortable, tonal, traditionally folk-like song cycle. The two movements, “Guarda che bel seren,” made excellent use of the colors of the string quartet in accompaniment to the voice. Of note, violist Lu Yu made a distinct impression with her soulful playing and dark timbre she pulled out of the instrument in contrast to the brighter violins and cello. Botti managed to keep the shape of the movement subtle, making the experience of listening to this movement a little flat at first but more engaging upon relistening. The second movement, “El me murus el sta de la del Sere,” imitated street music through extensive use of pizzicato in the quartet. Lead in confidently by cellist Minjin Chung, the ensemble picked up the style very well, sounding like an extended guitar. Botti also allowed this piece to drift into “new music” territory, with some far more aggressive dissonance and sul ponticello playing, most effectively rendered by violinists Ryan Shannon and Sophia Szokolay. Soprano Kelley Hollis held her ground through these sections admirably, allowing her to pull away from the dissonance and continue the otherwise folk-like melody unperturbed.

Hollis returned to the stage solo for Rossa Crean’s Three Sean-Nos Folk Songs. Sean-Nos, translated out of Irish Gaelic to mean “old style,” is the distinctly Irish solo singing tradition, unaccompanied voice embellishing an old tune. Three songs of relatively similar backgrounds comprised the three movements, with the last one “Fear a’ bhata” straying from a song of love to a song of longing for the love of a boatsman long gone. Here Hollis shined. She knew this material through and through and sold it. The songs were all about emotional impact, and Hollis knew how to fill them with pathos. Dancer Mary Chris DeBelina Doyle joined Hollis in an accompanying dance sequence, and although Doyle’s movements were smooth and very controlled, this reviewer is not entirely sure what the interpretive connection to the folk songs was. Perhaps that might be best left there, as that is not this reviewer’s field of expertise.

The premiere of Promesa by Joe Sedarski followed, seeing the return of the quartet. Hollis lead the accompanying quartet through a series of seemingly through-composed vignettes that recontextualized a melody and poem written by the composer’s great-grandfather. This time around, the accompaniment got to be more dissonant rather than in small sections, showing a deeper understanding of harmony and what changing levels of dissonance can do compared to otherwise more strict loosening of tension. The form felt loose and amorphous, arguably a byproduct of taking a pre-existing melody and grafting it onto newly composed material; aside from ending rather abruptly, however, that is more of an observation rather than a complaint.

screengrab from livestream

Family Photos by Kian Ravaei eschewed Hollis for the remainder of the evening. Three tone poems inspired by pictures taken at various points in Ravaei’s life showed three entirely different but quite related soundscapes, mirroring the construction and execution of Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet in a fair number of ways. The first movement, “At the Carnival,” felt the most familiar and arguably stereotypical to its subject. Shannon and Yu especially got to play their violins in a more fiddle-like manner, foregoing the classical playing style but not losing tone quality. Most entertainingly, Chung had a moment to play percussion by tapping the body of her cello with her hand and fist (this technique might have been in the second movement, more on that in a moment). The second movement, “On the Tehran Tower,” emerged from the previous movement, the only indication that something had deeply changed being some of the pitch content sounding like maqam. At first, because the movements of the piece are attaca, it was hard to tell if the first movement had ended, but it became clearer throughout. The final movement, “In Arcadia,” felt like a Stravinskian apotheosis to end the work, playing into the dual meaning of Arcadia as the composer’s home town as well as the Greek concept of heaven. “In Arcadia” also highlighted the quartet’s excellent ensemble playing, having the four players support delicate yet full harmonies.

In Jessie Montgomery’s Source Code, the closer, Doyle joined the quartet, dancing a somewhat more clearly connected performance to the music. Montgomery explained in the program notes that she sought to use spiritual music through vocal syntax, making the ensemble play shared gestures that resembled abstractions of spiritual vocal lines. This intent was most clear through Shannon on Violin I, who had seemingly the clearest interval connection to the source material. As someone who deconstructed other music in the past, this reviewer understood what was going on from that perspective; from a speech syntax perspective, there was not an immediately clear picture upon first listening, but that felt like the work would reveal its secrets the more a listener heard it. Through the slow fall from pitch centers A to G, Montgomery followed a musical density curve, making the quartet follow in the footsteps of the final movement of the Ravaei dialed up several degrees. As a closer, this piece definitely felt right.

Juventas continues to show how deeper thought about thematic connections can enliven concerts. They invariably forge strong links among the works they purvey sound inevitable.

Ian Wiese is a doctoral candidate composer at New England Conservatory studying under John Heiss. He interned for Juventas for a period of time. 

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