Boston New Music Initiative serves up a bracing array of works

April 29, 2013 at 9:31 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Boston New Music Initiative’s concert at Longy’s Pickman Hall Saturday night had a little something for everyone.

Eight works for chamber ensemble by established and budding composers spanned the tonal palette where ear-bending color pieces stood alongside others imbued with lush harmonies and driving rhythms. Each came alive for guest conductor Steven Lipsitt, who led the ensemble of mostly local musicians with vigor.

The most adventurous work of the evening was Panayiotis Kokoras’ Ghost Notes, heard inĀ its world premiere. Known for his commissions from the Paul Fromm Foundation and Boulez’s IRCAM, the Greek-born composer effectively turns winds and strings into an acoustic wind machine. The sonorities used were a literal fit for the title. With his right hand, the pianist tapped notes on the keyboard while stopping the strings inside with his left. The flutist rendered breathy phantom notes and, by work’s end, was called upon to blow the instrument long ways, all with good effect. The violinist, cellist, and bassist smacked and drew their bows across limp strings. The bass clarinetist tossed out short, whining tones and squawking harmonics. And for their part, the percussionists gently brushed the surfaces of tom and snare drums to add a thin shimmering layer.

The ghost notes of Ghost Notes came together in a windy collage that, in the end, elegantly faded into silence. But it is hard for any composer to stretch such material for long periods of time, and Kokoras’ work, though interesting, seemed to wear as it continued.

That wasn’t the case with Andrew Smith’s Separation Anxiety, a multi-sectional work for chamber orchestra filled with nervous energy.

After a raucous opening, Separation Anxiety broke into sparse strains of whistling violins, oscillating piano octaves, and growling flute and brass figures. The music again separated into a stabbing exchange of notes between cello and violins over a glassy texture of glissando strings. Motor percussion rhythms, played on tom-toms and bass drum, combined with piano chord clusters for a forcible close.

The equally vigorous in-retro/re-intro:spect, composer Emily Koh noted, describes the human process of remembering and misremembering details during self reflection. Koh’s tightly-constructed piece evolved from a punchy rhythmic motive that returned in different guises through the movement. Her writing is clean and accessible; static tonal harmonies blend with biting clashes of dissonance and pulsing rhythms. Here, Lipsitt conducted with energy, and the musicians answered with some of their sharpest playing of the evening.

Other works on the program drew upon American popular music.

Jonathan Russell’s Twelve Bean Groove Machine was a toe-tapping minimalistic affair where popping riffs mingled into a polyrhythmic collage similar to Lyle Mays’ Overture to the Royal Mongolia Suma Foosball Festival and other virtuosic jazz-rock numbers.

The throbbing lines of Andrew Davis’ Black Mamba sprung from a staid opening. Davis, a composer and electric guitarist in his mid-twenties, in part, derived material for Black Mamba from rock’n’roll licks. I couldn’t help hearing the influence of hard bop, especially when the ripping, sharply-played brass lines shouted over the fast-paced walking bass.

Gregg Wramage’s In shadows, in silence for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, also bounced with angular riffs and a jazz-like groove. Other passages in the work were more contemplative. The alto flutist and clarinetist rendered the spacious intervals at work’s close with warm tone. A similarly slow-moving duet between violin and cello came off a little thin and distant. Whether or not this was intentional is hard to say.

Another world premiere, Timothy Davis’ Moments for chamber orchestra, had the hallmarks of film and television scores. Horn and trumpet calls over a drone bass opened and closed the work, and sharp-tongued brass figures cut through the churning string ostinato in the middle section. All were cast in a diatonic style fit for a soundtrack to an American Experience documentary. The moving music–an expansion of his earlier A Few Moments Later for brass choir–well suited Davis’ theme of heroism: penned over the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Moments, the composer stated, is dedicated to the citizens of Boston in the tragedy of last week’s Marathon bombing.

The loveliest piece of the evening, David Biedenbender’s Winter Sunset for soprano and chamber orchestra, recalled the beauties of winter (an easy thing to contemplate now that the devilish weather is behind us). The composer described Winter Sunset, a sampling from his song-cycle Along the Road, as an “icy piece” suited to William Carlos Williams’ poetry. But the music also has a warming effect. The ensemble performed the stirring harmonies of the score’s thick texture with an affectionate sound. Soprano Erin Smith rendered the text with a lovely, ringing voice. Her upper register felt a little forced and, at times, she seemed to settle into her pitches well after the attacks. Her middle range, though, flowed gracefully.

This performance was the final BNMI concert of the season.

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