Pictures are back thanks to new phone! This review can also be found at the Boston Music Intelligencer.
Friday March 31 Boston Conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, led by guest conductor, Jeffrey Means, presented a program of works by living composers at 132 Ipswich.
Alvin Lucier’s Opera with Objects (1997) started the night with ten players surrounding a table filled with items such as coffee mugs, cups, a large movie popcorn container, chalices, etc. For nearly half an hour, the performers used number two pencils to beat and tap quick, repetitive rhythms—at times interspersed with concise, imposing solos—on the various objects, circling the table slowly until each performer subtlety dropped out—until there was just one person left tapping. Then her sounds stopped too. The work had a meditative, trance-like affect, and reminded one of a sacred energy-raising ritual. It demonstrated that everyday objects could serve musical, even consciousness-altering purposes. Meanwhile, conductor Jeffrey Means kept meticulous time and could be observed steadfastly leading the performers.
This was followed by Georg Friedrich Haas’ Fukushima from Schweigen (2011), a vocal work sans words that showcased sopranos Felicia Chen and Rose Hegele and incorporated extended vocal techniques. The two performers created siren-like sounds that explored extremes of the vocal range, unaccompanied by other instruments. At times their harmonics created the aural illusion of a third instrument, and made one wonder where exactly the sound was coming from.
Salvatore Sciarrino’s four-movement Le Voci Sottovetro: Elaboration of Carlo Gesualdo of Venosa (2011) closed the first half. It utilized elements of classical forms into a modernized pastiche style: one could recognize echoes of familiar solos, melodies, and cadences. Yet, the work’s aggregate sound was akin to a contemporary city’s dialect of the old, classical styles. Movements two and four incorporated sopranos Hegele and Chen and displayed both singers’ dramatic and vocal talents through extreme highs and lows of range. In movement three, the bass clarinet often carried the melody with copious trills. Singing of death, the Italian lyrics of the two vocal movements translate to “No, it is impossible to say nothing of the cruel torment which comes before death…and she who could give me life, alas, kills me…”
Boston-based composer, Marti Epstein’s Troubled Queen (2011) opened the second half. Inspired by Jackson Pollock’s painting of the same name, it incorporates lower range, diffuse sounds, including that of the bass flute. Opening with the rumbling pulse of an irregular and persistent drum, it sets an ominous mood from the outset, which gradually descends into a darkened sound space that purposefully lowers Epstein’s usual compositional tessitura. Silence is woven masterfully throughout, contributing to the aural dialogue of trombone, violins, viola, bass flute, bass clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion. Once again, Means’ unwavering direction moved the dedicated performers along their path. A long, dance-like period of interchange between piano and percussion created a hypnotic sound world, rejoined at last by the cello, which brought in the other players and signaled the beginning of the end. With its use of extended techniques, texture, and timbre Troubled Queen seemed to float in mid-air before fading out as mysteriously as it appeared. It received a large, enthusiastic ovation, and the composer—who was in attendance—was lauded.
Next was Harrison Birtwistle’s Liebes-Lied 1 and 2 (2008-2009), with baritone Joshua Scheid, pianist Jeremiah Cossa, and cellist Alexander Ullman. Vocally incorporating extremes of range, including falsetto, the pieces showcased Scheid’s committed acting and creature-like interpretation of the German text by Rainer Maria Rilke: “How shall I hold my soul and yet not touch it with your own? How shall I ever place it clear of you on anything beyond?” With his asymmetrical hair, tall, robust build, sharp features, high forehead, piercing eyes, and over-the-top acting persona, the baritone delivered an exquisitely eerie interpretation of Rilke’s uncanny love poem: “Oh gladly I would stow it [his soul] next to such things in the darkness as are never found down in an alien and silent space that does not resonate when you resound.”
Closing the night’s performance was Sciarrino’s Introduzione All’oscuro (1981). Making great use of aeolian sounds, the piece began with what sounded like the ocean—the trombonist blowing air into his instrument. Other players followed suit as a flutist created panting-like reverberations by blowing through her instrument without making tones. Percussive lip smacks on the clarinet sounded like heart palpitations, while gristly slides on violins contributed a sense of agitation. Whooshing extended techniques, instrumental taps, slides, muted playing, and bowing over bridges conjured an organized cacophony that viscerally felt like a panic one might experience before death. Instrumentalists’ entire torso’s ballooned up and down with each heaving breath, blowing air into mouthpieces destined to mute any semblance of tone. A distinct heart beat emerged from the frenzy as more and more musicians added to the sound of heaving breaths, while the bass and strings played menacing, sinister sounds. The heart beat became more prominent, as the grumbling bass underscored its plight. The playing stopped. Was this death?