Boston Musica Viva finale sets the air dancing with Korde premiere

April 12, 2015 at 2:26 pm

By David Wright

Shirish Korde’s “Kala Chakra” was given its world premiere by Boston Musica Viva Saturday night at Pickman Hall.

Let’s face it, “It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it” is not a line you commonly see in reviews of contemporary chamber music.

But at Saturday night’s concert by Boston Musica Viva in the Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall, there it was: the world premiere of a piece so rhythmically infectious that, if the tiny hall had any aisles to speak of, one could imagine the patrons dancing in them.

As it was, they had to content themselves with applauding vigorously and bounding to their feet at the close of Kala Chakra, Shirish Korde’s new nine-movement work for three soloists and chamber ensemble.

As the composer explained in comments from the stage, his piece was in fact a celebration of rhythm, not just in music but in life’s cycles of birth and death, gain and loss, winter and spring (a point not lost on blizzard-weary Boston listeners enjoying their first mild evening in months).

The able ensemble for this piece, and for most of the evening, consisted of Ann Bobo, flute, piccolo and alto flute; William Kirkley, clarinet and bass clarinet; Robert Schulz, percussion; Aaron Likness, piano; Gabriela Diaz, violin; and Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello.

The international cast of soloists included the Indian soprano Gitanjali Mathur; Wu Tong, who sang and played the sheng, a Chinese reed organ; and tabla player Sandeep Das, who contributed some remarkable vocals of his own.  All three had their voices amplified, which seemed unnecessary and a little intrusive in this intimate setting.

The piece’s title, the composer said, means Cycles of Time, but refers also to the Indian musical game of expanding a rhythmic unit by adding more and more beats to it until the players have to remember mind-bogglingly long sequences of beats.  Three movements also titled Kala Chakra brilliantly played that game at the beginning, middle, and end of the piece.

Four songs and two improvisatory interludes filled out the list of nine brief movements.  The songs were mostly of Czech or Kazakh origin, and the improvisations quoted riffs from jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Bill Evans, so this piece all by itself amply justified the concert’s overall title, “BMV World Tour 2015.”

Singer Mathur—“soprano” seems too grand a word for the mezzo-voce way she used her microphone—sensitively intoned the songs, mostly in long notes without vibrato, and seemed equally at home in the smooth Czech folk songs about the seasons and the more disjunct lines of “Single Light,” Korde’s setting of an ancient Zen poem about impermanence.  She also proved adept at bols, the fast, rhythmic spoken syllables that imitate drums.

Sheng master Wu, whose instrument looks like a small bundle of sticks, produced from it music ranging from wistful asides to vibrant chords—and, in the jazz-colored improvisations, blazing runs worthy of Coltrane.  The surprise was his singing, expressive and a little breathy, rising (in a Kazakh song of lost love) to a hoarse wail that made the hair on the back of one’s neck stand up.

Tabla player Das had only two drums to play—not much of a night’s work, one might think, but his subtle and dextrous contributions gave the piece a lift whenever he was spotlighted. The closing movement turned him loose in a long solo, a jaw-dropping, show-stealing display of ultra-fast bols and drumming.

And Kala Chakra was just the climax of a program full of propulsive music.  The concert’s “World Tour” title referred to the origins of the four composers in the United States, China, Italy and India.  But “The Beat Goes On” would have served as well for a title.

One might imagine that percussionist Schulz, who was onstage the whole evening, was in charge of laying down that beat, but no drum kit was in evidence Saturday night.  Instead, Schulz’s artful handling of a large array ranging from bass drum to high treble temple bells made him the color commentator of the night, weaving moods from mystical to militant, adding a pithy remark from time to time.  (Mention must be made of his show-off mallet twirl to make a temple-bell “ting” in the middle of a rapid wood-block passage in Franco Donatoni’s Arpège.)

The job of projecting the dancing rhythms fell mostly to the other members of the ensemble.  Pianist Likness of course, but also cellist Müller-Szeraws and flutist Bobo stood out for telling listeners exactly where to put their little foot.

Those three players and Schulz opened the concert with Sebastian Currier’s 1996 piece Whispers, which did indeed work in a soft dynamic most of the time, though with motoric energy to spare.  Currier’s idiomatic writing for each instrument while coming up with fruitful ways for them to interact showed the hand of a chamber-music master at work.

Violinist Diaz and clarinetist Kirkley filled out the ensemble for the rest of the program, beginning with Chou Wen-chung’s Ode to Eternal Pine, a 2009 piece in its third iteration following versions for Korean and Chinese orchestras.  Dance rhythms were largely absent here, as the piece’s mostly spare textures and leisurely tempos meditated on nature and human existence, while not ruling out moments of stark, kabuki-like drama.

Donatoni’s 1986 piece Arpège did indeed deal in arpeggios, though not in a blatant, Philip Glass kind of way.  Fleet-footed and staccato, the piece proved rich in Italian wit and volatility (think Vivaldi) and the six players were alert to its every mood and texture, so that it took on the episodic character of a theme and variations.  At several points, the play of accents in fast canons made the music dance even more.

With these three lively pieces for a prelude, the prospect after intermission of a nine-movement work for unfamiliar instruments on the subject of impermanence seemed daunting, kind of like that Mahler symphony you know is waiting for you at the end of the evening.  But in the performance, the deep feeling, flashes of virtuosity, and world-embracing humanism of Kala Chakra conquered all.  And besides, it had a great beat, and you could dance to it.

The program concluded the season of Boston Musica Viva.  The group’s 2015-16 season opens with a premiere by Steven Stucky and music of seven other composers on September 26.

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