Ludovico Ensemble closes season with two sensitive premieres

May 3, 2016 at 11:54 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Marti Epstein's "Mary Magdalen" was given its world premiere by the Ludovico Ensemble Monday night.

Marti Epstein’s “Mary Magdalen” was given its world premiere by the Ludovico Ensemble Monday night.

After a hiatus, the Ludovico Ensemble returned to action this season with several concerts that largely explored the music of Marti Epstein and Mischa Salkind-Pearl. Monday night at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline, the ensemble offered world premieres by both composers to conclude the season on a sensitive note.

Epstein and Salkind-Pearl presently enjoy established positions on the new music scene in and outside of Boston. Epstein, who serves as a professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory, has been a fixture on the scene for some years following residencies and fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and Tanglewood and commissions from the Fromm Foundation and many others.

Salkind-Pearl, the composer-in-residence with Ludovico who also teaches at Boston Conservatory, has recently been thrust into the limelight. His biggest local success came this past fall when Guerilla Opera premiered Troubled Water, his fantastic new opera based on the life and work of Japanese writer Ichiyo Higuchi.

If there are similarities between the music of these two composers, such as the wide sense of space and prevailing lyricism, it may be because Salkind-Pearl was a student of Epstein’s while he attended the Boston Conservatory.

Yet Salkind-Pearl, like Epstein, has developed into an artist with his own compelling voice. His style, given his two pieces on Monday’s program, is gestural in the best sense of the word. The premiere, The Plum Gatherer, scored for cimbalom and soprano and based on a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, features a string of short disjointed statements that are left to ring in space. The vocal line, sung sensitively by soprano Jennifer Ashe, unfolded in long sustained phrases.

Salkind-Pearl noted that the poem speaks of memory, but it also conveys a deep sense of loneliness, which his sparsely scored music captures to riveting effect. The cimbalom’s lonely trills, played with fine touch by Nicholas Tolle, twinkled like cold, distant starlight.

Like The Plum Gatherer, Salkind-Pearl’s Where I’m Likely to Find It for solo violin, also heard Monday night, consists of a stream of independent gestures that change subtly upon repetition. Violinist Lilit Hartunian deftly maneuvered the piece’s wide leaps, oscillating trills, and flute-like whistle tones.

The theme of memory plays a role in this piece too, and the ideas of the first movement fold over themselves like a thought that refuses to fade. The second movement, entitled “the wind,” is a somewhat literal take on the phenomenon. It begins with a single high pitch that grows in intensity before dying away. The pattern repeats and is interrupted by agitated figures, which Hartunian rendered with verve. The third movement, entitled “the sound,” had resonant warmth emanating from short trill figures that refuse to settle on consonant and dissonant harmonies. The heart of the movement is a sort of disjointed reel, which Hartunian handled with dexterity.

The most ear-catching music of the evening came in the premiere of Epstein’s Mary Magdalen, also scored for cimbalom and soprano.

Cast in six movements, the piece is a setting of excerpts from the Gospel of Mary and other Gnostic Gospels that tell of Mary Magdalene’s important place among Christ’s disciples.

Epstein’s score is beautiful in its simplicity, with shimmering textures and a serene, slowly unfolding melodic line.  Some of the most haunting music came in the sections where Mary is addressing the disciples. “The Nature of Wisdom,” whereby Mary explains her vision, was underscored by a series of ringing overtones.

Soprano Ashe sang the lines with a soft elegance and a distant radiance while Tolle produced a color wheel of sounds on the cimbalom to give Epstein’s piece a memorable first performance. One hopes it will have many more.

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