Despite distracting dance party, BNMI serves up a variety of compelling new music

April 17, 2015 at 12:36 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Patrick Valentino led the Boston New Music Initiative in a concert Thursday night at the Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge.

The Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge played host to performances of new chamber music Thursday night when conductor Patrick Valentino and the Boston New Music Initiative served up six colorful works.

The club is a hip, cozy space for music of this nature. The main stage has just enough room for the musicians to spread out in a comfortable setting while audience members are free to sit at round tables and order food and drinks.

But by concert’s end, it was clear that the club proved to be a problematic venue for classical music. The dance hall that makes up the upper floor of Ryles seemed to be in full swing Thursday night, and the soft sounds used in some of the pieces heard on the concert were often drowned out by the thud of techno music coming from upstairs.

The BNMI musicians played well despite this distraction, and Christopher LaRosa’s Sextet, though it could have benefited from a quieter venue, received a fine reading.

The first of the piece’s two movements contains music that creates a sense of anticipation. The listener is left to experience a collage of eerie sounds that are unsettling in their effect, like taking a walk in a dark alley. The ensemble of strings, winds, and percussion is called upon to accompany the ghostly sonorities with soft whispers and mouthed syllables that produce hushed rhythms.

The second movement, entitled “Grit,” is a swirl of perpetual motion, and the musicians delivered a sturdy groove through the music’s darting phrases. Percussionist Matt Sharrock supplied a steady drive of rhythms on tom drums and marimba, and the BNMI musicians—Deirdre Viau (flute and piccolo), Yhasmin Valenzuela (clarinets), Valerie Ross (piano), Matt Sharrock (percussion), Lilit Hartunian (violin), and Christopher Homick (cello) — gave the music’s gnarly passagework a gentle swing. LaRosa’s Sextet is a deftly crafted work, and one hopes it will receive many more performances.

Nicola Straffelini’s Labyrinth Song, which received its world premiere, is the winner of last season’s BNMI commissioning competition. The Italian composer has won several major awards for his music, and pieces like Labyrinth Song show why that is the case.

Scored for a Pierrot-like chamber ensemble with added percussion, the beautiful work makes use of the full range of both tonal and atonal styles.  It opens with gentle chords in the piano that meander about the texture as if in search of a melody. One is soon provided in a mournful cello phrase, played sensitively by Christopher Homick. The music breaks into light zigzagging phrases that are passed from violin to the piccolo. At work’s climax, the full ensemble erupts into squirrelly runs, though the music never loses its delicacy.

The musicians of BNMI gave Straffelini’s work a soft and colorful reading. Conductor Patrick Valentino was in command of it all, leading with both bold and delicate gestures to make a strong case for the work.

Carl Schimmel’s Roadshow for Otto made for fun listening. The five movements of this Children’s-Corner-like suite, written for Schimmel’s young son, are musical depictions of toys featured on PBS’s Antique Road Show and how a young boy might play with them.

The energetic work is also a riff on familiar musical trinkets, such as the sound of a music box, a carnival-like waltz, snippets of “Alice the Camel,” and the theme from Warner Brothers’ “Duck Dodgers” cartoons. In addition, the work offers attractive music, from a yearning cello line based on Mongolian moria khuur melodies to pulsing rhythmic statements that recall the work of John Adams. Some of the ensemble’s brightest playing of the evening came in the last movement, entitled “The Revolving Flashing Robot,” where the musicians dug in for the driving Bartókian rhythms.

Other works heard Thursday used a full palette of instrumental color.

Sang Mi Ahn’s i(dash) was especially convincing in its use of timbre. Inspired by the loss of information that occurs after a computer crash, this colorful score for chamber ensemble features a splash of sonorities at nearly every turn. Whiffs of melody that open the work freeze onto unresolved dissonances. The piece gradually winds up to a driving middle section, with pianist Ross supplying a sure-footed rhythmic groove. The musicians, in support, played with energy and precision.

The music of Maurizio Azzan’s Città della memoria seems to come from another world. This short evocative piece is awash with sound effects that feature the musicians in a mix of performance techniques, such as bowing across the bridge and wooden body of the string instruments, dragging fingers across the head of a drum, and dampening the lower strings of the piano so they produce a dull thud when struck. The work makes for some interesting listening, but it isn’t music that lingers in the memory. The musicians of BNMI, however, played it all with feathery delicacy.

The most fascinating piece heard Thursday night was João Pedro Oliveira’s Timshel for chamber ensemble and electronics.  Timshel is the Hebrew word that means “thou mayest,” and as the composer stated in his program note, the work relates to the capacity of human choice. The piece is expertly crafted from the smallest details, which grow to fill out a kaleidoscope of musical textures.

The work, which clocks in at about fifteen minutes, is a sound piece in the fullest sense of the phrase. It opens with fluttering piccolo, string, and piano figures that weave together in a silky sheet of sound. The texture is broken by violent passages that pass between the instruments. The music never quite calms down, and at any one time the score is chock-full of thin whistle tones in the winds, eerie glissandos in the strings, and clamorous runs in the piano. Such sounds make for an ear-tingling accompaniment to the electronics, which involve distant echoes and pulses.

Valentino wove the whistles, wails, and tinkling piano lines into a shimmering tapestry. The musicians answered his gestures with playing of utmost conviction.

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