Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

The Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music at the ICA Boston

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The Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the ICA Boston, photo © Christopher Peterson
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the ICA Boston, photo © Christopher Peterson

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the ICA Boston, photo © Christopher Peterson

The Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music
Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, The Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater,
Gil Rose, 2008 Artistic Director

Co-produced by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston

The first in a series of biennial festivals of contemporary music initiated by the Alice M. Ditson Fund, which supports music by emerging American composers. Also with generous support from the Boston Musicians’ Association

September 18-21, 2008

Boston was recently the scene of an extraordinary event, the first Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music, initiated by the Alice M. Ditson Fund, which sponsored a series of more modest contemporary music festivals at Columbia University in the 1950’s. Now, in 2008, it has been revived in a more ambitious form, as a biennial festival, which will take place in a different American city, curated by a leading musician from that city. Accordingly, the next Ditson Festival will occur in New York City in 2010. The inaugural festival in Boston was organized by Gil Rose, the almost incredibly productive director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and Opera Boston, was to my mind so successful, that it seems a pity for the Festival to move on anywhere else, as fine an idea as its itinerant comprehensiveness may seem.

If the unofficial result were to be a Boston Contemporary Music Festival, it would not be surprising, nor would it be unwelcome news, so rich is the community of composers, musicians, and performance groups in Boston, Cambridge, and environs, not to mention the hinterlands, which includes, of course, the Five College Area and the Berkshires. (Bard and Yale are such important musical centers in themselves that they would define the regional boundaries of such an enterprise.)

One significant reason for this success is ICA Boston, which hosted and co-sponsored the festival. Its new building was the perfect environment for such an event, providing not only an atmosphere which was both stimulating and congenial, but a hall with clear, present acoustics which were not only very pleasing, but just right for the music, with its small ensembles of diverse instruments, electronic components, and its vast sonic universe. I gather the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater at the ICA is quite a flexible space. As set up for the concerts I attended, the glass wall on the left side was open, and the magnificent view of Boston Harbor at sunset was an added pleasure. As with any trully successful building, I feel attracted to the place, just for the pleasure of being there.

I regret I could not be in Boston for all the performances. I shall write about Saturday’s concerts by the Callithumpian Consort and the George Russell Living Time Orchestra, and Charles Warren about Sunday’s concerts by Matt Haimovitz and the BMOP. Brief accounts of the performing groups, provided by the Festival, are included, as well as links to more complete discussions on the Festival/BMOP website. Charles Warren’s and my own contributions will be set off by broken lines: —.

The concert program, replete with notes and quotations by the composers themselves, is a documentary treasure in itself. I hope the organizers are making sure that all the major music libraries are receiving copies. If you have one, don’t throw it out, you’ll be referring to it some day, I guarantee.

Thursday, September 18, 2008
Firebird Ensemble

Curtis Hughes, Danger Garden
Donald Martino, Rhapsody for solo cello, with piano and vibes (Boston Premiere)
Mario Davidovsky, Flashbacks
Lee Hyla, Polish Folk Songs

The Firebird Ensemble is a group of adventurous Boston-based musicians described as “flat out terrific” (New Music Connoisseur) and “ambitious and eclectic” (New York Times). Founded in 2001 by New England Conservatory alumnus Kate Vincent (Director) and Aaron Trant (Assistant Director), it promises a huge array of new music from all stylistic corners of the repertoire.07-08 season highlights included solo appearances with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and the 2008 MATA Festival, another eclectic “MEAT the Composer” sequel at Redbones Barbecue Restaurant, and a sold-out concert at NYC’s Symphony Space.

Boston Musica Viva
Richard Pittman, conductor

Julie Rohwein, Borne on the Wind (World Premiere)
Gunther Schuller, Four Vignettes
Ronald Perera, Three Poems of Guenter Grass
Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano
Deborah Cornell and Richard Cornell, Tracer
Chou Wen-Chung, Twilight Skies

Music Director Richard Pittman founded Boston Music Viva (BMV) in 1969 as the first professional ensemble in Boston devoted to contemporary music.Through the years BMV has become one of the most highly respected ensembles of its kind, with an international reputation for innovation and excellence.The Boston Globe concluded “there is no group in town that excels it in adventure and responsibility,” and The New York Times wrote that BMV is “justly celebrated as one of the finest new music ensembles in the United States.”In its 39-year history BMV has performed more than 565 works by 233 composers.These include 143 works written specifically for BMV, 158 world premieres, and 71 Boston premieres.

Friday, September 19, 2008
Dinosaur Annex
Scott Wheeler, conductor

Scott Wheeler, The Gold Standard
Text by Kenneth Koch (Boston Premiere)
Barbara White, My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon (East Coast Premiere)
Richard Beaudoin, Eunoia Songs (World Premiere), Text by Christian Bok
Brian Robison, Dança da Tranquilidade (World Premiere)
Ezra Sims, In Memoriam Alice Hawthorne, Text by Edward Gorey

Founded in 1975, Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble has established an international reputation from its brilliant performances of newly commissioned pieces, established 20th century masters, and a large repertory of contemporary compositions. Dinosaur Annex presents world premieres from around the world as well as works by emerging composers of the Boston area. Members of the ensemble perform regularly with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Ballet, Handel and Haydn, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, and in Boston’s Broadway theater productions. They are passionately dedicated to bringing cutting-edge music of living composers to the public and maintaining an outlet for much music that is otherwise unheard. The group works cooperatively to this end with Co-Artistic Directors Scott Wheeler and Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin.

Cantata Singers and Collage New Music
David Hoose, conductor

Donald Sur, Satori on Park Avenue (Tea for Two)
Donald Sur, Catena III
Yehudi Wyner, On this Most Voluptuous Night
David Rakowski, Imaginary Dances
Dalit Warshaw, Sonate Francaise (The Unwritten Chapters) (World Premiere)
Donald Sur, Sonnet 97
Irving Fine, O Know to End as to Begin, from The Hour-Glass
Irving Fine, Design for October, from The Choral New Yorker

David Hoose has been Music Director of the Cantata Singers & Ensemble since 1982. Under his leadership, the ensemble has commissioned significant works for chorus and orchestra by John Harbison, Donald Sur, Peter Child, Andy Vores, Andrew Imbrie, T.J. Anderson and James Primosch, and has greatly broadened its repertoire to embrace large works of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Under Maestro Hoose, the Cantata Singers has been a recipient of the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, and its performances played a significant role in Hoose’s being honored with the 2005 Alice M. Ditson Conductors Award, given in recognition of his commitment to the performance of American music. The 44-member Cantata Singers chorus presents an annual subscription series of four main programs with its chamber orchestra in Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory in Boston, as well as a chamber series under the direction of Music Director, Allison Voth.

Founded in 1972 by Frank Epstein, Collage New Music is highly regarded for its scintillating performances of music by the great composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Under the direction of David Hoose since 1991, Collage has commissioned new works by such luminaries as Andrew Imbrie and John Harbison, as well as many local composers. Many of the finest American singers of contemporary music have appeared as guests with Collage, as have Seiji Ozawa, Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt, Clark Terry, Vanessa Redgrave, and others.In addition to its annual series of concerts and commissioning activities, Collage hosts an annual composer-in-residence, an annual composition competition for high school students, and is regularly engaged in recording new music.

Saturday, September 20, 2008
Callithumpian Consort
Stephen Drury, Artistic Director

John Luther Adams, songbirdsongs
Lei Liang, Trio
Jo Kondo, Aquarelle
Lei Liang, Brush-Stroke

Founded by pianist and conductor Stephen Drury sometime in the 1990’s, the Callithumpian Consort is an ensemble producing concerts of contemporary music at the highest standard, dedicated to the idea that music is an experience.The Consort is flexible in size and makeup, in some cases performing as a full chamber orchestra. Its repertoire encompasses a huge stylisticspectrum, from the classics of the last 100 years to works of the avant-garde and experimental jazz and rock. Active commissioning and recording of new works is crucial to its mission. The Consort has worked with composers John Cage, Lee Hyla, John Zorn, Helmut Lachenmann, Steve Reich, Michael Finnissy, John Luther Adams, Franco Donatoni, Lukas Foss, Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier, Jo Kondo, Frederic Rzewski, Fred Frith and many others.

The Callithumpian Consort’s interest in the work of John Cage and other composers like him was amply apparent in this program of exquisite, mostly brief, but intense works. As in Cage or Wolff the act and locality of performance are important parts of the experience. John Luther Adams’ (b. 1953) “songbirdsongs” (The title says it all.) would have been perfectly at home in a rural setting like the gardens of the DeCordova Museum or at Maverick in Woodstock, but in the elegant and understated urban setting of the ICA, the music stimulated the imagination to an even greater reach. While about two thirds of the length of the theater consists of open, flexible performance space, the audience sits on a rather steep bank of tiered seats. The two piccolo and flute players began their birdsongs from the upper back of the hall, eventually descending the steps of the incline down into the performance space, where they continued to move about, suggesting fluid, subtle relationships with one another. The ancestry of this music in the coda of the second movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony was clear, and their approaches had much in common. Adams did not so much imitate birdsongs as recall them in music particular to the instruments, which included an ocarina as well. These birdsongs, however, which at moments seemed to evoke vast landscapes, do not come from Concord, or Peterboro, or the Berkshires, but from Alaska, where Adams, a native Mississippean, reached maturity as a composer while working as a percussionist in the Fairbanks Symphony.

Lei Liang (b. 1972) and raised in a musical family in Tianjin, China. He participated in the Tiananmen Square protests, and was interrogated by the police as a result—which led to his removal to the United States to continue his studies in Austin and at the New England Conservatory and Harvard. He is currently Assistant Professor of Music and the University of California in San Diego. The idea for Trio (cello, piano, percussion: 2002), however, arose from a local experience, a walk around Fresh Pond in Cambridge in a snow storm. He said, “I can never forget the scintillating sound of thousands of snowflakes quietly and violently hitting the dry leaves and pine needles.” Otherwise the work is highly conceptual, even abstract. Similarly, his Brush-Stroke (small orchestra, 2004), began with a concrete association, ancient Chinese calligraphy, which he led directly into the realm of musical cerebration, as he followed his idea of “one-note polyphony,” in which “each single note functions as an intersection where various musical dimensions can be accessed.” [Listen to the Callithumpian Consort play Brush-Stroke (MP3)]

The consort gave an impeccable performance of Liang’s concentrated and very beautiful works. In the clear and present, but nicely balanced acoustic, the musicians focused on stated Mr. Liang’s propositions, but expressed them in handsome, burnished sonorities. Yukiko Takagi’s finely nuanced playing of the piano parts was especially impressive. No matter how abstract the ideas behind the music may be, or how much its sound is bound up with a the hermetic aural world of the composer, it benefitted greatly from the sonic elegance of these highly polished but passionate musicians.

Lei Liang’s works were separated by Aquarelle (1993), a work by the prominent Japanese composer Jo Kondo (b. 1947) for piano and percussion (vibraphone, cowbells, and gong). Kondo has developed, following the example of Takemitsu, Matsudaira, the young John Cage, and Morton Feldman. The sonorities of this solemn, “chordal” work (that is, focused on the succession of complex sounds) at time reflected its primary mood and at times went far afield into exotic realms.

The music, mature examples of the legacy of Cage, Wolff, and Tudor, delighted the ear and transported the imagination. (M. Miller)

The George Russell Living Time Orchestra
George Russell, conductor

Brad Hatfield, keyboards; Steve Lodder, keyboards; Mike Walker, guitar; Kermit Driscoll, fender bass; Brooke Sofferman, drums; Pat Hollenbeck, percussion; Stanton Davis, trumpet; Scott deOgburn, trumpet; Rich Kelley, trumpet; Dino Govoni, tenor/soprano saxophone; Shannon Leclaire, alto saxophone, clarinet; Tom Ferrante, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Hiro Honshuku, flute; Alex Han, tenor saxophone (in So What); Jeff Galindo, trombone; Angel Subaro, bass trombone; special guest, Shiela Jordan, vocals on You Are My Sunshine; Steve Colby, sound

Listen to the Silence (opening theme)
All About Rosie
American Trilogy (excerpt)/You Are My Sunshine
The African Game
It’s About Time (excerpts)
So What? (Miles Davis, arr. Ingles, Russell)

George Russell has been a hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, the music’s only major theorist, one of its most profound composers, and a trail blazer whose ideas have transformed and inspired some of the greatest musicians of our time. “The Living Time Orchestra is a compelling and persistently surprising force in contemporary music.” (The Village Voice) Led by George Russell, The George Russell Living Time Orchestra has toured all over the world. Most recent projects included a performance at the Barbican Centre in London and the Cité de la Musique in Paris, augmented with string players from the U.K. and France, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees for the Festival d’automne in Paris, the Glasgow International Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tokyo Music Joy, the Library of Congress, Festivals of Umbria, Verona, Lisbon, Milano, Pori, Bath, Huddersfield, and many more.

No landscape of “good” music in Boston would be complete without George Russell. Early associated with Gil Evans, he played with such greats as Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, and Max Roach. His influential treatise, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, grew out of his contact with Davis. After serving on the faculty ofthe School of Jazz in the Berkshires, beginning in 1958, his interest in the confluence of contemporary classical music and jazz led to his appointment in 1969 to a position at the New England Conservatory by Gunther Schuller, where he remained until his retirement in 2004.

This reunion with his Living Time Orchestra had a nostalgic quality to it. Last minute changes among the players, however, produced a superb group of young and old musicians, whose work was limited only by an apparent unevenness in their familiarity with playing together, as well as, perhaps, a lack of rehearsal time, paritcularly in that space.

The music began with the full-hearted, larger-than-life trumpet-player, Stanton Davis, sounding off behind the rear curtain, amplified. This was a huge sound, louder than necessary, which through amplification began to suggest the labyrinthine acoustics of a jazz club or bar. By the time the second piece, “Stratusphunk,” was underway, the sound engineer, Steve Colby, was using much less amplification, allowing the acoustic instruments to make their own voices heard. He realized, presumably that it wasn’t necessary in the hall. The quality of the individual players, who played from score, and of much of the ensemble work was truly amazing. Each and every musician showed him or herself a consummate jazz virtuoso and played with commitment, imagination, and spirit. Secure, expert direction came from keyboard player Brad Hatfield and percussionist Pat Hollenbeck, joined intermittently by George Russell himself. Pat Hollenbeck came to the fore during the course of the second half of the concert, bringing the orchestra together and producing the evening’s most satisfying ensemble work.

The first half of the concert consisted mostly of Russell’s work from his pre-NEC days, which fit comfortably in the mainstream jazz style of the 1950’s and early 60’s. The second half reflected his concept of “vertical form,” which emerged in the mid 1960’s, inspired by the sound of African drum choirs—a rich sound involving an complex interweaving of the various choirs of the orchestra. Shiela Jordan appeared to tell an anecdote about the creation of Russell’s dark and troubling arrangement “You are my sunshine,” referring to the life of the miners in Jordan’s native Pennsylvania, and to sing it. The most trenchant moment of the entire concert was its growling orchestral conclusion.

As gifted and as spirited as the individual musicians were, the music seemed a little tired, etiolated, as if the tradition had rolled on too long without a sufficiently radical self-examination or fresh blood. For the most part, it left me cold, for the most part, as if I were listening to an academic exercise. Partly inspired by jazz, classical music has undergone its trial by fire in terms of the authority of the composer or conductor and the autonomy of the individual musician in performance, and improvisation. Here jazz, going through its usual routines and riffs, seemed much in need of the same kind of renewal. (M. Miller)

Sunday, September 21, 2008
Matt Haimovitz, cello
Geoff Burleson, piano
August Read Thomas Cantos for Slava (World Premiere)
David Sanford, 22 Part I for cello and piano
Tod Machover Vinyl Cello
DJ Olive

Haimovitz is an Israeli-born cellist now based in the United States and Canada. He is known not only for his outstanding technical and musical skill, but also for his highly unusual concert career and repertoire choices. Matt has been touring with a new CD entitled Goulash.From Bartok to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” he brings Middle Eastern and Romanian folk music to the club. From 1999 to 2004, Haimovitz was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Since 2004, he has taught at McGill University in Montreal as well as the Domaine Forget academy for the arts in rural Quebec.

Sunday afternoon, the final day of Boston’s Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music, featured cellist Matt Haimovitz. This young man is a cello virtuoso and a great musician, intense, thoughtful, and full of feeling. He played an hour-long recital with sympathetic pianist Geoff Burleson and with also sympathetic vinyl-spinner DJ Olive, and later returned with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The Haimovitz recital began with a wonderful piece by Augusta Read Thomas, “Cantos for Slava,” a tribute to master cellist, teacher, and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. The first Canto is a dialogue between pizzicato cello and staccato piano, with material later picked up in the third Canto with harder notes and chords. Meanwhile the second Canto has proceeded with a lyrical high whine from the cello echoed by direct, reverberating plucking of strings on the piano, the pianist standing up and reaching over the keyboard, and all this is developed in the fourth Canto with more conventional and direct ways of playing. It is a highly original piece, seeming to reinvent music as it goes along, and tapping new areas of feeling. Haimovitz and Burleson followed with David Sanford’s sonata full of notes, 22 Part I for Cello and Piano, and then Tod Machover’s “VinylCello” for amplified cello and DJ spinning disks of Haimovitz recordings and controlling a panel of sound adjustment knobs. The amplified cello uncannily imitates speech, with broad gestures and phrases, the DJ collaborating, and all this gradually turns into what seems purely music or song, but ends with a return to speech that is strangely now still music—really original and stirring work. (C. Warren)

Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose, conductor

Harold Shapero Symphonia in C Minor
Paul Moravec Montserrat, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Matt Haimovitz, cello
Leon Kirchner Toccata
Arthur Levering Il Mare Dentro (World Premiere)
Commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project
John Harbison Partita for Orchestra
Andy Vores Two Fabrications (World Premiere)

BMOP has had an outstanding reputation amongst Boston’s most innovative and performing arts organizations for attracting multi-generational audiences and providing thematic, diversified programming, and a national reputation for performing and recording new orchestral music at the highest level. Founded in 1996 by Artistic Director Gil Rose, BMOP strives to illuminate the connections that exist between both contemporary music and society by reuniting composers and audiences in a shared concert experience.The 07-08 season offered no fewer than 10 world premieres. In addition, BMOP recently launched its signature recording label BMOP/sound.In just 11 years, BMOP has received nine ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming of Orchestral Music including the 06-07 ASCAP Award for Programming of Contemporary Music, and the 2006 American Symphony Orchestra League’s John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music.

After a break, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose, presented a full and ambitious concert. There was a lot of traditional tonality to be heard in this program, nothing along Carter or Boulez lines, but everything inventive and worthwhile. This orchestra is a fine one, with a cultivated string sound and musicians in all sections who listen to each other and play as a real duo here, a trio there, or a larger group with a sense of purpose. It was a real pleasure to sit in the ICA’s attractive theater with good acoustics and views out the glass walls to Boston Harbor, and take all this in. The first half gave us Harold Shapero’s Sinfonia in C Minor, from 1948, the wind ensemble still sounding strange and unlike anything else. Arthur Levering’s Il Mare Dentro followed, an evocative sea piece. Then Haimovitz returned for Paul Moravec’s Montserrat, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, a tribute to Pablo Casals in a romantic, lyrical style, but smart, well handled, and fresh-seeming. The second half of the concert presented even more inventive material, giving me, for one, a charge after sitting for a long time and listening to a lot of music. Leon Kirchner’s Toccata, from 1955, is a sonata form piece whose string rhythms and plangent wind writing sound rather like Stravinsky, but it is still a beautifully developed, energetic, and creative work – somebody please bring back Kirchner’s great Piano Concerto from the same period! Next came Andy Vores’s Two Fabrications, drawn from a much longer series. The pieces evoke the experience of encounter with other works of art, in these two selections fashioning sound and line to suggest wandering through rooms filled with huge Richard Serra sculptures, and reading a Caryl Churchill play where speech degenerates into monosyllables and fragments – all this arresting and sounding like nothing else one had heard. The program concluded with John Harbison’s Partita for Orchestra, surely one of his best pieces, a four-movement work where a sense of play and calculation – play as in a chess game – melds with a more raw and intuitive impulse to celebrate life, even in its sadness. Harbison has a distinctive way with melody and mood. He often makes me think of Sibelius, though he is his own man and altogether American. Three days before this concert Harbison was in charge of an Emmanuel Music performance of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, where with the small and varied ensembles and highly committed playing, everything sounded experimental and like new music. (C. Warren)

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