IN: Reviews

Revealing More Sides of NEC Composers


Egyptian composer and musicologist Halim El-Dabh

Designed by the forward-thinking and always curious Bruce Brubaker, Curator of Piano Programming and Piano Department Chair at New England Conservatory, the second concert in the piano series “Music by NEC Alumni and Faculty,” found current students performing nine works spanning 1892-2004 from the diverse and esteemed alumni and faculty who that have walked through the halls NEC.

Although an unusual example, Egyptian composer and musicologist Halim El-Dabh’s (1921-2017) Five Egyptian Folkloric Works (1940) made complete sense as the first introduction to the series’s goal of revealing a more three-dimensional image of the Conservatory. Written almost ten years prior to his studying in the United States,) Dabh’s example contained brief — often single—statements of folksongs. Essentially juvenilia, the music captured the heart of the folksongs while exploring clever contrapuntal solutions. El-Dabh became known as on the preeminent forerunners in electronic and tape music.

Clouds (ca. 1940) by Florence B. Price (1887-1953) is a recently found treasure. Very much a Debussyian evocation, it floats, light, and impressionistic in all ways, even as it meandered beyond the boundaries of her predecessors. One of NEC’s most important graduates, Price has only re-emerged as a respectable composer in the past five years, with the recent revival of her piano solo literature, symphonies, and chamber compositions. Pianist XueYing Fan conveyed the subdued expression with ease. Clouds lay dormant for many years, only resurfacing in 2018 through the research of Dr. Michael Cooper and the advocacy of Lara Downes.

A segue into the more avant-garde brought us Lee Hyla’s (1952-2014) Basic Training (1994). Premiered a couple of decades back by NEC’s own contemporary titan Stephen Drury, Hyla’s highly demanding piece unfolded with excitement and vibrancy in pianist Qi Liang’s execution. Its melodic linearity endured, despite the misplace exclamations of expansively dense blocks of sound. Difficulty in maintaining the momentum was apparent near the climax, but the contrasting and music, charged with eruptive energy zigzagging to an abrupt lull, revealed Hyla’s important contribution, finding a home among the music of Rzewski and Zorn.  

Three Character Studies (2004), written by another alumnus and former faculty Fred Hersch (b.1955), one of the most acclaimed jazz musicians alive, constituted his first foray into fully-notated compositions. The color within the studies sought to be referential: “Nocturne for Left Hand Alone” as a Chopin (and Ravel, of course) exercise that emphasizes loose harmonic shifting in an arpeggiated context; the very short “Little Spinning Song”, a simple Kinderszenen-like stepwise melody within a whirling texture; and “Study in Thirds and Sixths”, which playfully hints at a syncopated tango (or could it be interpreted as a ragtime?).

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach

Amy Beach’s (1867-1944) “Dreaming” (1892) from her Sketches, Op. 15, the earliest piece on the program, and written in her 20s, it shows her as a traditionalist with a light, reflective, romantic mood and familiar, predictable melody presented with concision and structure. In contrast, her more mature Prelude and Fugue, Op. 81 (1917), with its dramatically dark opening, reveals the influence of Scriabin chromaticism and a supreme ability in dense counterpoint, which pianist Bairun Liu rigorously realized. The fugue subject (A, B-flat, E, A, C, B-natural) open the prelude and fugue, framing the ambiguous and virtuosic swells with the mood of A-Phrygian. The adventurous formal design fluctuates between sectional motion and static chorales; op. 81 arrives at its harmonic center of A-Major quite late.

Lono (1972) by Cecil Taylor and Memphis (1998) by Ran Blake highlight two of the most distinctive voices of jazz piano. In Lono, jazz pianist Jonathan Paik explored the theme with focus, incorporating Taylor’s iconic flourishes into a more subdued and structured performance. Memphis, with its beautifully haunting noir motive and rich harmonies, deserves inclusion in the jazz canon. As a reference to the day and location of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, you can hear a great discussion between Ran Blake and Stephen Drury on Memphis HERE. Pianist Santiago Galeano brought his individual take, with a transparent, spacious, pulsing take on the bluesy introduction, and its three reiterations.

As a meditative conclusion to the concert, Lei Liang’s Garden Eight (1994/2004), the six scenes [Tian 天 (Heaven), Di 地 (Earth), Dong 東 (East), Nan 南 (South), Hsi 西 (West), and Bei 北 (North)] drew inspiration from the Ming Dynasty’s remarkable horticultural treatise Yuen Yeh. With performative solemnity, Pin-Chieh Jewel Chen stood over the piano and struck within and outside the instrument, which transformed into ancient temple bells, a zheng (Chinese zither), a Zen garden, and the environmental resonance that touches the soul.

Looking at the three programs as a broad selection from 150 years of music education, audiences can trace the traditional European sensibilities of Chadwick to Florence Price and Amy Beach (1880-1940s), thought the modernist rigors of Lee Hyla and Donald Martino, to the various jazz and world music threads that propelled the imagination of the conservatory since 1969. This curated sampling, certainly no complete retrospective, by necessity left out some composers.  Robert DiDomenica, George Russell, Thomas Oboe Lee, Robert Ceely, and Robert Cogan ought to figure in future compilations.

Pieces by Donald Martino, Alan Hovhaness, Donal Fox, Margaret Ruthven Lang, Quincy Porter and others, feature in the concluding installment on Tuesday at Jordan Hall and by livestream. Free tickets need to be reserved HERE.

NEC pianist Roberto Poli will be summarizing all three concerts in an extended review later in the week.

David Stevens is a Boston-based saxophonist and woodwind doubler. He teaches woodwinds and theory and maintains an active performance and arts administration schedule. More info at

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  1. It would appear that the quoted Beach Op. 81 motif is a musical signature in the German system (A-B-E-A-C-H), rather earlier than the D-Es-C-H everyone knows.

    Comment by Gerry — February 21, 2022 at 6:15 pm

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