Music of young composers sparks BNMI’s wide-ranging program

November 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Soprano Chelsea Beatty performed with Boston New Music Initiative Friday night at Pickman Hall.

Now in its sixth season, the Boston New Music Initiative has carved out a niche for itself as a platform for established as well as up-and-coming composers in today’s dynamic music scene.

BNMI’s concert Friday night at Pickman Hall, led by artistic director and conductor Patrick Valentino, offered performances of works by seven composers. Two of those, Amanda Stuart and Massimo Lauricella, have received international attention. But some of the most enjoyable works of the evening came from those who are at the beginning of their careers.

The concert opened with Alexander Elliott Miller’s Two Autumns.

A song cycle based on three haiku by Basho, Buson, and Shiki, Two Autumns is a plush and tightly constructed piece that is filled with colorful imagery. A searching flute line, complete with trills and bent tones, opened the setting of the first haiku, “Harvest moon.” Soprano Chelsea Beatty muttered, whispered, and hummed her lines to haunting effect. To accompany her, the flute, violin, clarinet, and cello fused their phrases into close dissonances, which shimmered like moonlight on water.

Squirrelly clarinet runs and pizzicato strings punctuated the second of the set, “The old pond.” The lines of the searching third section, “I don’t know/ which tree it comes from/that fragrance” featured Beatty in passages of creamy lyricism. The singer chanted the lines of “The scissors hesitate” with sharp focus, a fitting counterweight to the piercing blasts from the flute and percussion. Velvety phrases from the ensemble supported Beatty in the final poem of the set, Shiki’s “I go/you stay/two autumns.”

Danniel Ferraz’s Árido, scored for a ten-piece chamber ensemble, is a short, visceral piece. This musical portrait of the Brazilian back country opens with wailing and screeching sonorities in each instrument. The prickly musical fabric is soon fragmented as darting wind riffs and sliding strings combine into thick, Rochbergian blocks of sound. In other places, stabbing dissonances come to dominate the texture. In all, the music never seems to die down, its episodic sections propelling forward with little break. And for that reason the work seemed monotonous and lacking in direction. Árido, though, has some impressive moments, particularly the rousing percussion solo, which was sharply played by Masako Kunimoto. Valentino led the ensemble in an energetic reading of the score.

Patrick O’Malley’s Thin Places No. 3: Island Sanctuary, which was inspired by video games, is a musical tour of an artificial landscape created on a computer. Friday night’s performance presented the music alone without any visual image, a test, as O’Malley noted before the concert, to see if the music could stand on its own.

It does. Scored for cello and electronics, the piece is mesmerizing and colorful in its detail. The electronics move episodically from high ringing chimes to the sound of blowing wind and distant voices. Overhead, the cello floated fragments of stirring melody and a sheen of harmonics. With playing that shimmered to the finest detail, cellist Christopher Homick gave O’Malley’s work bold advocacy.

Equally stirring was E piove in petto una dolcezza inquieta by Massimo Lauricella. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and soprano soloist, this gorgeous work is based upon three short verses by Italian poet Eugenio Montale. A spaciously scored collage of flickering piano lines and soaring phrases from the winds and strings fill the first of the set, “Felicità raggiunta.” The lines of the second, “Non Chiederci La Parola,” grow into aggressive trills and darting figures, Chelsea Beatty delivering her phrases with stentorian power. The concluding song, “Ciò che di me sapeste,” was dark and haunting, the instruments covering Beatty’s wispy phrases in a thin blanket. In all, Valentino led the musicians in a sensitive reading.

The most arresting works of the evening came after intermission. Of those, Alex Temple’s Willingly for flute, piano, and electronics, left an indelible impression. To craft the piece, Temple interviewed family members and other close acquaintances and echoed the melodic and rhythmic contours of their recorded responses with crisp lines from solo flute and piano. The music’s effect is similar in style to Steve Reich’s groundbreaking docu-operas The Cave and Three Tales. 

Given some of the responses from Temple’s subjects, the piece was both humorous and, at times, uncomfortable to listen to. The work, though, never lost its emotional immediacy. Speakers boldly told of walking into an abortion clinic for the first time and putting a razor blade to their wrists.

Temple’s score caught it all. Refreshingly tonal and popping with rhythmic energy, the music beamed from the fine flute and piano playing of Deirdre Viau and Valerie Ross.

Also affecting was Amanda Stuart’s Not Missing You. Scored for electronic sounds and amplified solo voice, the work is more a recitation than a sung piece. With hushed tones, Chelsea Beatty chanted the text of a poem by the composer that recalls the joyful memories and resulting pain of a lost loved one. The music unfolded into amplified echoes of the chanted phrases and prerecorded sustained pitches that spread to intervals of seconds and thirds before sliding away into a fog of sound.

Not Missing You was composed as a graphic score, and its calligraphic images were projected on screen during Friday’s performance. It’s as beautiful to look at as to hear, the colorful lines running across the page in long strokes. Elsewhere, smears of red and blotches of yellow, orange, and blue cover the score as in a Rothko painting.

The concert closed with another musical-visual piece, Nicolas Tzortzis’ L’étoile de mer. This curious and hypnotic music, scored for flute bass clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, accompanied a showing of Man Ray’s 1928 surrealist film of the same name. The seventeen-minute movie is filled with images that are now a cliché of the genre. We see the blurred clips of a woman undressing, still shots of a starfish, newspapers blowing across the ground, and the opening and closing of a door.

Tzortzis’ score worked well as a probing soundtrack, its trickling piano figures, fluttering flute, and moaning lines for the bass clarinet and cello capturing the surrealistic weirdness and dark emotions that lie at the heart of the film.

The Boston New Music Initiative will feature works by LaRosa, Azzan, Ahn, Omiccioli, Schimmel, Lin, Straffelini, Oliveira, and Hong 8 p.m. April 16 at Pickman Hall.

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