Aucoin’s music a work in progress yet given fine advocacy at Rockport

June 24, 2015 at 10:55 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Matthew Aucoin’s music was performed Tuesday night at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.

Matthew Aucoin is on a roll.

The 25-year-old pianist, poet, conductor, and composer has written works for Yo-Yo Ma, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the American Repertory Theatre, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and has had operas commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera.  His prodigious talents have some commentators wondering if he is the next Leonard Bernstein.

But hopefully Aucoin will develop into his own man with a unique style. For now, at least, his works don’t show a distinct compositional voice, with his style at this early stage in his career sounding like one of exploration and experimentation.

That was the feeling one came away with Tuesday night at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, where Aucoin and friends offered several of the composer’s works as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s Rising Star Series.

The program consisted of what Aucoin called “a grab bag” of chamber pieces composed over the last three years.

The most inspired work came last. The Orphic Moment (2014), written for chamber ensemble and countertenor and violin soloists, is the composer’s unique twist on Orpheus’ trek to save his beloved Eurydice from the clutches of Hades. To Aucoin, Orpheus isn’t the heartbroken hero of Greek legend but a narcissistic aesthete who would rather lose Eurydice over and over again for the chance to sing a beautiful song.

It’s a thought-provoking interpretation, and Aucoin’s score beautifully captured the story’s stormy mood. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was a bold presence as Orpheus, singing the part with vibrant voice. Violinist Keir GoGwilt was Eurydice, who spun searching melodic strands to capture the pained cries of a woman struggling to find her voice.

That was most apparent by work’s end, where Costanzo intoned a wistful “Could I lose you again?” No immediate answer came as GoGwilt’s violin was swallowed by the ear-piercing chords emanating from the ensemble. Eurydice’s voice finally reappears in lines that were both aching and desperate.

GoGwilt played his part vividly to bring out the heightened emotion of Eurydice’s death struggle, and Aucoin led a bold and committed account of his work.

Aucoin’s conducting style is dynamic, and he took time to shape the musical line with accents and crescendos through subtle wrist movements, the occasional scooping gesture, and stances that range between a squatting position and a backwards, limbo-like lean.

His baton was also well deployed in a performance of his Celan Songs (2014), scored for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble.

Based on poetry of Paul Celan, these songs capture Aucoin’s fascination with words and music. The texts are set sensitively to fit the natural pitch and rhythm of the source material.

The melody of the final song, “Corona,” seemed to float effortlessly over sparse clusters of chords, while the first, “Ich höre,” featured a swirl of darting lines, which resolved into plaintive sonorities. “Sprich auch du” was serene in its mix of cascading string and wind figures, and in “Espenbaum” ghostly harmonies framed the melodic line, which unfolded in silky phrases.

In each, mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis sang with amber-toned richness. The ensemble—GoGwilt (violin), Amy Advocat (clarinet), Andrew Janss (cello), and George Fu (piano)—played with energy and sensitivity.

The other Celan-based work heard Tuesday, Celan Fragments (2013-2015), scored for violin and piano, was less successful. Here, Aucoin abandoned lushly scored sounds for sparse textures and phrases of what seemed to be incomplete thoughts interspersed with readings of Celan’s poetry. The fitful score had a few successful moments, which featured GoGwilt floating lonely, silvery melodies. Aucoin, at the piano, answered with chords spaced widely in the instrument’s extreme registers to create a stark, haunting effect.

The concert opened with Dual (2015), a duet for cello and bass. This work of what Aucoin called “bass-register maximalism” begins with soft, steady rumbles, which roll like distant thunder. Hints of soaring melody soon emerge, and waving figures and eerie harmonics fuse into singing lines that seem to hover over the ever-chugging bass.

Dual shows Aucoin at work with grinding cross rhythms and an angular harmonic vocabulary for music of stirring energy. Cellist Andrew Janss and bassist Lizzie Burns gave it stellar advocacy.

Three Études (2014), for solo piano, showed Aucoin in a similarly angular style. The first of the set, entitled “rondo which devours itself,” is a witty display of disjointed statements that come together in sturdy phrases before imploding. The second movement flows from a meandering line that is punctuated by left-hand chords in irregular rhythm. The final piece of the set, “a sounding,” contains harmonies of bright tonal beauty. Throughout, pianist George Fu played with precision to make a strong case for the work.

Poem for Violin, written for and played by GoGwilt, consists of colorful and sweeping melodic writing. This piece, another of Aucoin’s experiments with words and music, accompanies a text—unidentified in the program note—that is projected onscreen during performance.

Tuesday’s rendering featured the music alone sans visuals, and it worked for the most part. The piece flowers from a thin, silvery line, which GoGwilt played with fine touch, into weighty phrases peppered with well-placed left-hand pizzicatos. The music seems to yearn and plead, not quite finding solace until the melody comes to rest on a note high in the instrument’s upper register. How these gestures reflect the chosen text, unfortunately, was impossible to tell.

GoGwilt proved himself a fine advocate for Aucoin’s music, and played the piece with conviction.

The next event of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will feature the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and pianist Emanuel Ax in music by Mozart, Schumann, and Copland 8 p.m.
Thursday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.
rockportmusic.org

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