The Ludovico Ensemble, founded when many of its core musicians had Boston Conservatory at Berklee connections, now ranges from two players to a Pierrot grouping of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano; the company also includes a singer and saxophonist. Yesterday two violas and cimbalom celebrated the new-music group’s 20th year of existence. Marti Epstein, composer from the BoCo faculty, welcomed the audience in the Studio 401 black box theater. Other than in Ludovico concerts, Kodály’s Háry János Suite, and Stravinsky’s Ragtime (there’s one esoteric example by Debussy, of all people, but you have to guess), one seldom hears a cimbalom, which is a hammered dulcimer, in concert, let alone sees one up close. (Your reporter got a good look at the four-legged trapezoid with complex courses of strings and dampers — low notes with two wound wires, high notes with four unison strings, the whole brought together by Pavel Všianský of Brno, Czech Republic). Nicholas Tolle, cimbalomist, used at least half a dozen different kinds of mallets, hard and soft, with a range from cello C to A an octave above the treble clef, and dynamics from ppp to fff.
The concert began and ended with poetical solos by Bahar Royaee, an Iranian composer who worked with Marti Epstein and Felipe Lara at BoCo and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY. Tombstone (composed 2017) was three movements for solo viola, 12 minutes long, with an epigraph in Farsi by Yadollah Royaee, the composer’s uncle. Sam Kelder made use of many advanced techniques, beginning with ultra-high tremolando close to the bridge, high trills and ponticello scrapes answered by left-hand pizzicato notes, koto-style pressure on the strings bending the pitch, an elliptical bowing style across the strings over the fingerboard, and finger-muting of all four strings at once. Some strong open-string sounds and multiple stops contrasted with these delicate penetrations, and Kelder’s total concentration added to the serious impression. The composer’s note concludes: “There is Death, running away in the horizon, in the vibration, in the space, running away from itself (the known-unknown).” The same serious intent materialized in the closer, Two Sands Engraved an Image in the Corner of My Memory, also headed by a Farsi text: “The pebbles and sands, they awaken eternity / In far-off hands. / Oh, if only I were the sun / On the bare bed of sand.” The solo cimbalom, with long to ultra-long notes in tremolando on very few pitches, plucked, strummed, struck, or scraped, some tones prolonged with EBows attached to the strings, gave the world premiere.
Zoeken by Anthony Green (the title means “to search” in Dutch) also featured the cimbalom. It demanded different registers, high and low, stroked and plucked, with wide-ranging dynamics and a choice of mallet types, and plenty of resonance, because the dampers were lifted much of the time. At one point Tolle dumped two quarts of pingpong balls onto the strings. They twanged and bounced and scattered everywhere, but the diversion neither noticeably impaired the perception of G minor suffusing the sound, nor destroyed the sense of a rondo shape: “It is a musical, melodic, gestural, and sonic exploration with (hopefully) a clear structure,” according to the composer’s essay.
An intended rondo form was obvious enough in by Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s Musette en Rondeau, for two violas. This short, friendly piece alternated hushed, chorale-like G major episodes with buzzing and bariolage centering on D-string unisons. The prominence of open strings gave emphasis to the title, borrowed from Rameau. Sam Kelder and Anna Griffis answered each other in dialogue. They followed with another premiere, Marti Epstein’s To Streak With Many Colors (2019). “I was inspired by the bariolage string technique,” she wrote, “and when I discovered that barioler means ‘to streak with several colors,’ I decided to use that as the title of the piece.” One kind of bariolage alternates an open string with adjacent fingered string, which shows as a wavelike motion of the bowing arm, and when the pitches are the same, the wobble in tone becomes coloristic; Epstein’s impressionist sound made elegant use of it, and I remembered the exaggerations in Berg’s Opus 3 Quartet.
John McDonald, the senior composer present, offered two different works for paired violas. The earlier and shorter Tuppenny Pieces, “Ache” and “Sensing Lightness,” “aspire to move around some small but hopefully striking motives and materials.” “Ache” sounded expressive enough, though hardly painful, and especially in “Sensing Lightness,” an airy, lilting upbeat gesture prevailed, reflected in the melodically thrown upbow; ruminative pizzicato notes followed as though in a far-off echo. Earlier on the program came a McDonald premiere: April Full Moon: Regular Old Life, in which violas and cimbalom combined. The violas dominated in chorale-like double-stops, notably chromatic and even fierce, alternating with tremolos and contrapuntal duets, sometimes imitatively, and fighting single gestural notes. At other moments, the violas challenged each other, striving in alternation for the same high note. But this irregular new life gave importance to the tonally sensitive melodic lines.
A lot of students and their friends stuck around significantly afterwards to schmooze with the performers — all 20 years or more younger than the cohort at Collage New Music. But both groups represent the cutting edge of modern music in the Boston area. No viola jokes here for the two expert professionals; and the virtuoso cimbalom player, Nick Tolle, told me he will be playing in Stravinsky’s Renard next month (last time I heard it live was on Boston Common in 1957).