Saturday, July 30, 2016
On hearing an ensemble for the first time, a critic tries to descry its distinctive qualities. We’re unlikely in this golden era to hear a string quartet with inadequate technique, but more likely to hear one that is indistinguishable from its peers. In business since 2002 and with the current personnel since 2008, the well-respected Danish String Quartet added the Borletti Buitoni Trust Award to its collection of prizes last February, and just issued its debut disc on ECM. In Ozawa Hall Thursday night, the quartet revealed its essential character from the start. Here was a uniform foursome that produced a creamy tone through a smooth legato without a touch of grittiness—more genial Victor Borge than warlike Erik the Red. To these ears in row R, though, the projection seemed a bit wan, as if coming through slanting late afternoon rays in a cold climate. Composer Per Nørgård tells us that his 1952 Quartet No. 1, Quartetto breve, “has a firm root in the Nordic tradition and is strongly inspired by Jean Sibelius and my teacher Vagn Holmboe;” in his initial venture into the quartet genre, he makes much of his infinity series (Uendelighedsrækken), which, according to reports, serializes melody, harmony, and rhythm in musical composition in the endlessly self-similar nature of the resulting musical material. The brief piece’s seven minutes of developing factorializations seemed to ponder, as would Mendelssohn later in the program, “Is it true?” Arguments ensued, sometimes becoming emphatic and assertive. At one point the cello launched an abortive fugal discussion before general agreement returned in the form of a 50s dance of death. Later, the first slashed out over accompanying pizzes. A Beethovenian cadence brought down the curtain on a work that played to the ensemble’s strengths of uniformity, unanimity, and poise. Violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin succeeded less well in Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13 (Ist es Wahr?). Not so metaphysical as the name suggests, and posing no questions on the meaning of life, it rather quotes the opening notes of the composer’s lovesong, “Frage ,” which asks: Is it true? Is it true that over there in the leafy walkway, you always wait for me by the vine-draped wall? Written by an 18-year-old Felix scant months after the death of Beethoven, and citing the last movement of Op. 135 string quartet “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?), it is often performed in pairing with a late quartet of that earlier master. Because Mendelssohn wrote it during a time in his life when hormones flowed dramatically, it rewards an open-hearted interpretation with more potent surgings than the restrained and sonically meager enlightenment take that the Danes delivered to my distant seat. The organ-like opening promised drama, but the players delivered dignity and probity instead, overlooking the deepest emotions. Their over-legato technique could have benefited from more variety of articulation and a more generous resort to grittiness when the writing demands more agonizing. The Danish String Quartet at Ozawa hall (Hilary Scott photo) Beethoven’s Quartet No. 12 in E-flat, Major Op. 127, the first of his late ones, opens with a grand Maestoso which the quartet enrobed in broad soulfulness, projecting their biggest sound of the night. But as the large work unfolded, they stinted on the angularity of Beethoven’s crazy stops and starts, making the rough places decidedly too plain. When they did dig-in, intonation suffered, especially from the first. Perhaps if I heard the group at the much smaller and more resonant Maverick, where they are playing the same concert on Sunday, the presentation would convey more intensity, but in this outing Beethoven felt tame, notey, over-metric, yet strangely slurred withal. To an encore of Carl Nielsen’s settings of three traditional Danish songs, Min Jesus lad mit hjerte fa, Scenk kun dit hoved du Blomst, and Tit er jeg (arranged by violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen for the quartet and evocative of Britten’s “The Water is Wide”), they brought a revival-tent warmth and imploring advocacy. Amen. Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer. The post Great Danes Ponder Musical Questions appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
Cait Frizzel, Fleur Barron, Adriana Velinova and Lucy Shelton (Hilary Scott photo) Messian tell us “This work is a love song,” while Richard Taruskin labels it “Sacroporn.” The Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) usually concludes in an evening of large orchestral works. Taking advantage of the sheer number of talented young musicians involved, programming has been ambitious of late. A few years back we had George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin; last year, all the symphonies of Ives; and this year, the gargantuan and profligate Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony. This masterpiece, perhaps Messiaen’s signal achievement, should be a source of deep pride for the BSO, as they commissioned it (one of Koussevitsky’s many efforts), and premiered it way back in 1949 under Leonard Bernstein. Since then it has only come back twice according to the BSO database: in 1975 and again in 2000. I happen to think both quotes above are right: and while Taruskin’s formulation is a little truculent, it does capture a sense of the work’s extremity and excess. I think Turangalîla is a masterpiece, a towering achievement; but I can’t say it is always in good taste. I’m very happy to report that this rare, precious experience was thrilling, ecstatic, ravishing and not excessively concerned with good behavior. The orchestra of Tanglewood Center Music fellows, plus the heroic piano soloist George Xiaoyuan Fu and feature ondes martenot player Genevieve Grenier, all directed by Stefan Asbury, provided the me with 60 of the most entertaining, moving and purely joyful minutes of my listening career. The joke, of course, is that Turangalîla runs more like 80 minutes. The languors and dead stretches were equally attributable to orchestra and composer. Of the ten movements in this work, the hardest nut to crack is probably the eighth movement, the “Developpement de l’amour.” Up until then there has been an incontinent profusion of ideas, mostly developed through canny layering, uncanny juxtaposition, repetition, and combinations of timbre and texture. The eighth movement is Messiaen’s last attempt to digest it all, using the same material and the techniques, but this time grinding everything much finer than before. It takes a long time, coming after the hour mark, running nearly 12 minutes in recordings (I was too caught up to measure performance times but the tempos here felt typical). With leisure to think about it soberly, an architectural argument can be made for the excesses of the symphony in general, and the scale and struggle of this movement in particular. But in the sticky, humid Berkshire night, restlessness reigned in the crowd, and just the slightest sense of fatigue prevailed on stage. Players shifted in their seats; gazes wandered out into the audience during long rests. But if one has any sympathy at all for Messiaen’s project—his desire to not just evoke eternity but to invoke it, to cause to come into impossible being— we forgave the occasional dead patches. So many spectacular moments counterweighed them. The first movement prefigured all, where the listener was suddenly plunged into one distinct sound world, then immediately into another, in a series of hot and cold baths. The composer gives no time to transition from place to place, instead, he processes those shocking changes in the ensuing nine movements. The fifth movement (“Joie du sang des etoiles”, or “Joy of the Blood of the Stars”), reached the highest point of the evening. A piece of immense power and joy whose primary melody, it is also goofy and playful, a great puppy-dog of the Apocalypse bounding here and there. Although the middle section was a little muddy—suddenly all the musical material is fragmented and developed at once, and Asbury chose to dash through it with high spirits rather than to tease anything out—it never lost its headlong energy, and the final chord was sustained so long, with such a steady increase of energy, that it fairly tore shouts and a brief burst of applause from a handful of listeners. Asbury paused, then looked over his shoulder with a gesture that seemed to say, “yeah, I know, right?” which induced laughter and additional applause. I don’t know that I’ve before ever seen performers and listeners actually stop to marvel at the power of what they just heard. The he held up five fingers, and then ten, telling us we still had a good long way to go. It was a small moment of camaraderie shared with the nearly full Ozawa Hall. Although each year’s contingent of TMC orchestra only lives for a short season, this one played remarkably well. As has been the case all weekend, individual and sectional performances were always excellent. Asbury coaxed out some interesting insights: for example, the “statue theme” in the first movement soundred surprisingly lithe and flowing on its first appearance, but as it recurred it took on a more monumental character, providing a sense of growth and change (“development”?) just through interpretive choice. The pianist has his work cut out for him: this work is almost a concerto, given how often the piano is featured, and the fearsome complexity of his part. With stunning virtuosity, Fu summoned an appropriately shiny, brilliant, hard tone that never flagged or lost its edge: a touch of Prokofiev inside Messiaen. The ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that, like the theremin, can invoke memories of late-night horror movies, was stroked with suave sensuality by Grenier, though in places more aggression may have served. The brass found fury; the strings created a three-dimensional sound. I had heard Messiaen was known for the quality of his string writing; until now, I’m not sure I knew what that meant. It was a gossamer sound, but not fragile; quiet, but able to fill-in space completely: clear, but weighty, like water. Turangalîla a trilogy of works from the same period that treat the topic of erotic love, inspired by the Tristan and Isolde story. We heard the first, the song cycle Harawi for soprano and piano, at the earlier prelude concert. Working with similar material but with much reduced forces, Harawi sounded like an X-ray of a predecessor of Turangalîla, replacing orchestral color with the sensuality of the voice and frankly weird poetry. On Monday the interpretive tasks fell to three singers who are TMC Fellows (sopranos Andrina Velinova and Cait Frizzell, mezzo Fleur Barron) and the iconic Lucy Shelton, now TMC Faculty. Joshua Marzan, James Maverick, and Eri Nakamura divided the pianistic duties. Four singers shafred the final song—something that isn’t justified by the text. As such, it was more of a series of excellent but individual realizations than a full interpretation. That said, the one singer granted two songs in a row (Barron) made the most of her opportunity, projecting “Montagnes” with a deep, almost forbidding tone and affect, before switching instantaneously to a much more open, inviting stance for “Doundou tchil.” Those constructed words are intended to evoke Andean ankle-bells but in this case they had a frankly seductive, come-hither air to them that caused this reviewer to break out in a light sweat. Stefan Asbury leads the TMCO, countertenor Daniel Moody and the Lorelei Ensemble (Hillary Scott photo) I hate to come to George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, the work that opened the concert, so late in this review, but it got a little lost among all the Messiaen. Written for very large orchestra, counter-tenor and women’s vocal ensemble, it sets six Andalusian Hebrew poems from the turn of the first millennium (translated into English), along with a couple of fragments of Lorca, which are themselves actually translations of Arabic writings from about the same time. A BSO commission in conjunction with three other major organizations, it was receiving its U.S. premiere. It reminded me in an oblique way of the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in its collection of diverse poems that don’t exactly hang together and in the combination of voice and exotic soloist (in the Benjamin, it is the women’s chorus). Of course, Benjamin’s sound world couldn’t be more different than Britten’s; and it lacks Britten’s theatricality, surprising in that Benjamin’s stage works are among his most celebrated. Perhaps I remain, even many years later, in the overwhelming thrall of Written on Skin, but Dream of the Song never seemed to get beyond its attractive surface. The eight-member Lorelei Ensemble sang the women’s’ chorus but they were difficult to hear except when getting their very attractive solo turn in “Cielos y campos.” Countertenor and TMC Fellow Daniel Moody was the very state-of-the-art in modern countertenor-ship, making a clear, confident, plangent sound that was still a touch otherworldly, but which never called attention to itself. Perhaps there is still some tinkering to be done: the work will appear on the BSO schedule in the coming year and is worth a listen. But when it finished, I was left thinking that the piece simply didn’t make the most of the opportunities available to its immense and distinctive forces. The work that followed it made up for that, of course. When the final chord of Messiaen finally came to its protracted, consuming and terrible end (the woman in front of me put her fingers in her ears), we sensed that everyone—orchestra, the conductor, the pianist, the composer, the audience—had put everything they had out on the table. The ovation that followed was grateful but also triumphant. Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine. The post FCM Spreads Glorious Table appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
For years, the theme of the concluding Sunday morning concert at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) has often been “…and on the other hand…”. That is, the pieces scheduled for this 10:00 a.m. event are sometimes rather different from the pieces encountered so far. A few years back Pierre-Laurent Aimard scheduled a Festival of often intimidating modernists, but gave Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians the entire second half of the Sunday program. This year, the late Steven Stucky’s program isn’t quite so polarized, but the six pieces this morning did stand in opposition to the six encountered on Saturday. Forced to characterize that difference, I would say the pieces Saturday were on the whole more ingratiating and more inviting to the audience. Even Erin Gee’s unconventional mouth sounds were easy to appreciate as odd virtuosity. The works Sunday were often a bit tougher to crack, but they were in the main more engrossing. At least to this listener. The other thing that seems to happen is that scads of people are bussed to this concert. Even I cannot believe there are busloads of contemporary music admirers wanting to hear a morning performance, and I wonder if the older man whose grumpy “Thank God!” punctuated his early exit had been transported by bus to Ozawa Hall. The first piece might be an exception to my forced dichotomy of “ingratiating” vs. “interesting”. Dense and hyperactive, Anders Hillborg’s (b. 1954) Brass Quintet strikes me as digestible and fascinating to anyone who is familiar with the Rite of Spring, though the techniques employed here are rather different. In this piece Hillborg layers his materials right on top of one another, with just enough time to let the brain register them. They recur often enough to alert the memory, and they have a tonal core to them though their layerings are often dissonant. At crucial moments the music thins out to a single rapidly repeated pitch, tossed around the ensemble, giving the listener a chance to catch their breath while never dropping intensity. The rapid overlapping and intercutting of the music provides a sense of compositional virtuosity, while the athleticism of the figures demand actual performing virtuosity from the players. Exciting, engrossing, and well-proportioned, the work was especially welcome because it brought brass instruments to the chamber music stage in something other than incidental roles. It was important to be reminded that there are exciting and astonishing young players using instruments not present in Pierrot-derived ensembles. Tanglewood Music Center Fellows Priscilla Rinehart (horn), Elmer Churampi and Anthony Limoncelli (trumpets I and II), Kelton Koch (trombone) and Joe Lefevre (tuba) played with ease, aplomb and brilliance. After that, it was five works for ensemble that were, yes, Pierrot-derived: they all included piano, flute, clarinet, violin and cello, some with additional strings and percussion. They were all mostly modernist in bent—by which I mean they eschewed overt tonality and often played very free with dissonance. But the grouping comprised great variety. Brett Dean (b. 1961) is an Australian composer whose calling came relatively late, eventually leaving a post as violist at the Berlin Philharmonic (!) to concentrate on composition. His Sextet (Pierrot plus percussion) carries a subtitle, “Old Kings in Exile”, that refers to a memoir by Arno Geiger about Geiger’s father’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease, an extra-musical reference that seemed to have at best a passing relevance to the piece, which seems quite easy to take on its own terms. It is built in three movements in a slow-fast-slow arch, dominated by the large middle movement. The slow movements are ghostly and nocturnal, where lonely twelve-tone melodies hang suspended over guttural rumblings from the bass drum and spectral gong-scrapings. That melodic material is just barely recognizable (at least on my first hearing) in the big second movement, which is build out of cascades of collapsing scales and nested triple-time rhythms, holding at its center a haunting flute melody blurred with flutter-tonguing. The last movement is similar enough to the first to sound familiar, yet changed by what has gone before. A long solo in the piccolo, which recalls the flute but with a slightly hollower, more impersonal sound, hints at what that change might be. It engages the intellect architecturally and the moment, while inducing an emotional reaction and sense of journey difficult to put into words. The late Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), a modernist of the late Stockhausen bent combined an enthusiasm for the austerities of Darmstadt with a devotion to Eastern philosophy. Matthew Mendez’ program note catches the flavor of this combination beautifully by quoting Harvey declaring that “spectralism in its simplest form as color-thinking, is a spiritual breakthrough.” This makes it possible for him to write his four-movement Song Offerings using the fragrant poetry of Rabindrinath Tagore, but to be able to write about the “acoustic formant” of the word death in the final song that permits him to set it so that “syntax, spectral acoustics and poetry are inextricably linked.” If you say so. I can’t say that this linkage was audible, or that any breakthroughs, spiritual or otherwise, were experienced by the audience, but I can say that it was a nice occasion to be re-introduced to soprano Sarah Tuttle, who I heard at last year’s FCM. On that occasion she struck me as fresh-faced and engaging; a year later, her voice has darkened attractively and gained dimension. The po-faced seriousness of the music felt limiting, though she was able to spin some fire into the occasional extended melismas Harvey threw her way. There’s some nifty tone-painting here, to be sure, which makes full use of the extended Pierrot ensemble (adding a second violin, viola, and bass). The change from the sleep of the first song to the waking of the second is vivid, and there were unexpected timbres of music-boxes and wind chimes in the final poem, a sort of epithalamium to Death, but I felt I was hunting for virtues during much of the piece. Pierre Boulez, who died early this year received his one fitting and satisfying tribute at the FCM with his Dérive 1 from 1982. Only seven-minutes long, for Pierrot plus percussion, it is filled from start to finish with resonance: from held strings, piano sustain, and trilling woodwinds. Its taut, closely argued, and demanding of (and repaying) attention. Dérive 1 also calls to mind Debussy from its first notes, and can be parsed by the listener as a dialogue between the piano and clarinet. The other instruments provide commentary and atmosphere in an environment that changes and evolves constantly in response to that dialogue. If one had been fearing rebarbative Boulez, this must have come as a pleasant surprise. Franco Donatoni’s (1927-2000) career was troubled. Early on he wrote difficult and challenging works drawing on ideas from Darmstadt and Cage. He referred to this as his “negative period.” Arpège (Pierrot plus percussion) comes from his second, “joyous” period, which was extremely productive. He still stuck to his old roots, using “codes” into which he fed material to create his music. This process is very audible in Arpège, which is a series of episodes built on a steady rhythmic pulse. The principles underlying the pitch organization are anybody’s guess, but interest is fully held through the changing colors and textures, both rhythmic and timbral. There’s always something to hold on to, though never one thing for very long, and there’s a steady parade of variety. But while its local organization is unified, there’s an arbitrariness to its architecture, no audible plan to explain its scale. It suddenly starts, changes entertainingly throughout, and ends. It is a perhaps unusual object, a work built on modernist principles but whose purpose seems only be to pass the time entertainingly. I enjoyed being in its company, and it did not overstay its welcome. David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows (Hilary Scott photo) It is stretching definitions to call Harold Meltzer’s (b. 1966) Variations on a Summer Day “Pierrot”-like. In truth, it matches the instrumentation (two flutes, two clarinets, piano, two violions, viola, cello) of Ravel’s Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, one of the conditions of its commission from the Fromm Music Foundation. Meltzer also chose to set poetry, in this case the eponymous poem by Wallace Stevens. It began life as a setting of eight of the brief stanzas of which the poem is composed; the version presented at the FCM contained double that number. Sixteen is a lot of miniature songs, and it would double the length of this already verbose piece to comment on all of them. Stevens is a dangerous poet to set to music. There are many ideas at work, and his syntax is often challenging (I doubt anyone can make “The Arachne integument of dead trees” work effectively in a song.) To bring this text under his control, Meltzer employs an array of strategies, with both successes and failures. He uses music to mirrors images in the music, conjuring astonishing gulls at the start. He also dutifully supplies piano music on the line “improvises on the piano.” There’s dramatic invocation, from marvelous, soaring, restless a capella melody on the ninth stanza, “This cloudy world,” to a weirdly demanding interpretation of “Cover the sea with sand rose.” Mezzo-soprano Quinn Middleman was extraordinarily well-suited to this project. Although at first appearance she seemed merely a round-faced, cheery presence, her voice was commanding and direct, and her personality sly and even a little seductive. Stevens’ more archaic lines were occasionally enlivened with a sideways glance or half-smile, as if she were pleased by its cleverness. And while the setting of “Cover the sea with sand rose” was much too intense for the text, I had no question I would obey her if she demanded it of me. Somewhere in the low teens of settings my mind wandered from the music, but it only wandered far enough to focus on the interpreter, a pleasant way to end this late morning. The Dean and Harvey were conducted by Nuno Coelho; the Boulez and Meltzer by David Fulmer; and the Donatoni by Christian Reif. There were too many performers to list for each piece after the Hillborg. A total of 25 players appeared on stage: 22 TMC Fellows and three guest artists, not counting the conductors or the members of the brass quintet, who were mentioned above. The playing was on the uniformly high level I’ve come to expect from the FCM; of particular note was the effortless technique demonstrated by all of the young players, and the clarity and transparency of sound achieved by the conductors. The FCM contains what is certainly the most difficult and challenging repertoire heard during Tanglewood, played with excellence by the youngest artists. For anyone who values the music of our time, this has to be tremendously encouraging. One exhausts one’s vocabulary of praise for their achievement. The post Oddly Virtuosic Sufficient for Some at FCM appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
Erich Leinsdorf (Ansel Adams) As you make your way out of Lenox on your way to Tanglewood, you may easily overlook a small sign on the side of the road, marking a driveway. If you pay attention, you’ll often notice young people in groups, many with instrument cases, walking to and from the concert grounds. This sign marks the location of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, where young people talented high-school students attend one of the country’s premiere training programs for musicians. The low-profile sign belies the importance and long history of the Institute (BUTI for short), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer on August 6th with a day of events, culminating in an Anniversary Concert and “BUTI@50 Soiree” at the Lenox campus. The redoubtable Erich Leinsdorf, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director in 1966, asked the Boston University College of Fine Arts to create a program for high-school musicians to complement the BSO’s activities at the Berkshire Music Center, which we now know as Tanglewood. Now led by Executive Director Hilary Field Respass, BUTI has at 50, an impressive roster of alumni to draw upon for their anniversary. Two young composers of special note have written commissions for the 50th Anniversary Concert. Nico Muhly (BUTI ‘96-7), whose opera Two Boys premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013, will debut Pulses, Cycles, Clouds, a work for percussion ensemble. Timo Andres (BUTI ‘00-’01), winner of the 2008 Charles Ives Prize and composer of an impressive array of chamber music, has written a “triple brass quintet fanfare” entitled Land Lines. In addition, the BUTI Young Artists Orchestra will also play the Meistersinger and Academic Festival overtures, and a bass ensemble led by Lawrence Wolfe (from the very first BUTI) will perform a medley entitled It all starts with Koussy, as well as works by Kodaly and British composer Tarik O’Regan. The 50th Anniversary Concert begins at 2:30 at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood and will be emceed by Emmy Award winner Lauren Ambrose (BUTI ‘94-5). A soiree under the Highwood Tent will be hosted by BSO radio host Ron Della Chiesa after the concert. Leinsdorf congratulates Phyllis Curtin (Heinz-Weissenstein-Whitestone-Photo) Before the festivities, one can take in BUTI campus tours every half hour from 9:00 – 10:30 am. Timo Andres will also appear at an 11:00 a.m. piano recital with more recent alumni Leon Bernsdorf (BUTI ‘10) and Paul Celebi (BUTI ‘15). A 12:45pm Alumni Panel Discussion on the topic “Changing Lives, Influencing the World” will feature BUTI alumni including soprano Alyson Cambridge (BUTI ‘96) and conductor and composer Lucas Richman (BUTI ‘79-’80); \ longtime BUTI Executive and Artistic Directory Phyllis Hoffman will moderate. Of course, the 50th season of BUTI is already underway, and will continue into mid-August. In addition to the Anniversary events, comes a steady parade of performances and workshops (see the schedule here ). This year has also seen the introduction of an Opera Intensive. Nico Muhly joins a new Visiting Artist Residency Program along with pianist Simone Dinnerstein (BUTI ‘86-87). These new efforts will help ensure that the BUTI’s future will live up to its illustrious past. The tours, piano recital and panel on August 6th are all free, though to guarantee seats one should register here . The same site can be used to purchase tickets for the 50th Anniversary Concert ($20) and the BUTI@50 Soiree ($30). Proceeds from the concert will benefit the BUTI. The post BU Institute Now 50-Year Institution appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
The Friday concert at the Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) at Tanglewood featured the New Fromm Players in a quartet of quartets written in the last eight years. No theme suggested itself for the afternoon, but “searching for a voice” came to mind. All four works had to confront the history of this archetypal ensemble and find a way to make it personal. None succeeded entirely, but some grappled more effectively than others. To my ear, the study in fragility that is Hans Abrahamsen’s (b. 1952) String Quartet No. 3 lingered longest. Wisps of melody intertwined to create a minimalist surface, but the mechanisms that created the music were fluid and subtly various, and often played at the edge of audibility; the last movement was performed entirely with metal practice mutes. It was willing to court tedium, but even when it threatened to sound like (hushed, urgent) finger exercises, there was something going on that compelled attention. Its most extroverted moments occurred in the third movement, where lines kept running up to linger in clinging suspensions. It reminded me of Morton Feldman’s music in its denser, chromatic moments. But at its best, especially in that movement marked Molto tranquillo e lontano e legato, it has a simplicity and elusive charm that seemed to silence even the crows who commented throughout the afternoon. Joseph Phibbs’s (b. 1974) String Quartet No. 1 searches for its voice by rummaging in the attic of past music. It opens with a selfconsciously archaic sound, calling to mind the last movement of Ben Johnston’s last quartet but without his microtonal haze to justify it (or the surprise Johnston buries in it). But once Phibbs finishes with that, he goes looking farther afield, calling to mind milder Shostakovich or rhetorical Britten; lyrical, modal melody of early 20th-century English composers; and angular stomping recalling watered-down Bartok or early Lutoslawksi. There’s so much of this going on that it is tempting to call it postmodernism, but with no hint of humor or irony in any of it. If this is appropriation, it is dead-serious, even desperate. That is a perfectly understandable reaction for a contemporary composer to have in the face of the mountain of historical repertoire, and Phibbs does find something of his own in this collection, but it is fitfully audible, and threatens to be buried by the very skill of his borrowing. Certainly he does not lack for ambition or musical skill: the quartet has five strongly contrasting movements, and sustains interest for nearly all of its nearly half-hour length. Having waited until he was 40 to write a quartet, Phibbs wrote his second a year later, and the program notes said a third is in the works. The searching intellect on display in this first work encourages one to see what more he has discovered, or will discover. Donnacha Dennehy’s (b. 1970) One Hundred Goodbyes (Cead Slan) was one of two works that added electronics, in this case heavily sampled and arranged recordings of Irish traditional songs and Gaelic speech. The recordings were made in the late 1920s by Wilhelm Doegen and Karl Tempel, funded by the new Irish government to capture what was already recognized as a dying rural way of life. The songs are played in distant, muffled monophonic fragments while the quartet skirls around them. The instruments respond to the voices with everything from overt echos or anticipations to slight changes in texture, rhythm or balance. The inevitable comparison has to be with Steve Reich’s Different Trains, but without Reich’s overt theatricality and with a suppler minimalist technique. This makes for a more modest piece, one which pays gentle tribute to a society now dead. Unfortunately, its modesty is not enough to support its scale; each movement threatens to exhaust interest before its end, and although the peculiar vocal production of the last recorded singer was not to be missed, the piece itself felt overextended. Perhaps some of this might be laid at the foot of the players. The New Fromm Players (Jordan Koransky and Natsuki Kumagai, violin; Mary Ferrillo, viola; Francesca McNeeley, cello) are all TMC alumni brought together under the aegis of the Fromm Foundation for the purpose of playing new music. As such, they are each formidable technicians and expressive players with strong personalities (longtime attendees at NEC concerts might even recognize Kumagai and her forthright playing). An expressly temporary ensemble, they must struggle to find a collective voice, and the group personality projected on this occasion was powerful, even intimidating, while a touch aloof. Dennehy’s work may have demanded more heart-on-sleeve that they were able to offer. Donnacha Dennehy’s One Hundred Goodbyes (Céad Slán) (Hilary-Scott photo) I am aware that Sebastian Currier (b. 1959) had something of a sensation with the BSO last year when they played his Divisions, which I did not hear. So I was looking forward to his Deep-Sky Objects, a 10-song cycle for soprano, quartet, and piano, and came away confused and disappointed. Like Dennehey, Currier wrote the work in 2011 and used electronics, but there the similarities end. The electronics here are an intrusive array of samples programmed into a keyboard, many of which call to mind hoary planetarium music and sound effects. This is apparently on purpose: the texts (by Sarah Manguso, in collaboration with the composer) talk of satellites and stars, the sky and the universe. Not only the texts but their one-word titles (“Satellite”, “Star”, “Time”; you get the idea) are set, the titles pronounced by electronic voices distorted and seemingly autotuned. The notes quote the composer as saying these title-bits sound “almost like ringtones”, so I suppose I’m getting the right impression; it just failed. The sounds are tinny and mechanical—nothing ages so fast as new technology—and to ensure their supremacy all the players were miked and mixed, meaning the sound came at the audience from a flat plane with no depth. The mixing in this case was expert—the sound system in Ozawa Hall seems quite oversized and I have sat through other electronic works that were painful. Even so, the voice of soprano Sophia Burgos was hard to assess and robbed of resonance. She certainly navigated the trickier moments with aplomb, grace and accuracy. The music is not strong enough to hold its own against the gimmickry that surrounds it; the texts are romantic and longing and pleasant enough, but the whole things smacks of intellectual laziness, taking on some big concepts about the universe and turning them into scifi high art. Even computer science gets into the game, with the line “Oh tremendous wall of numbers —/Oh 011110010110111101110101”, which is just as awkward to hear sung as you imagine. The notes tell us this spells “You” in binary. I’ll spare Intelligencer readers my software engineering background, but feel free to imagine me holding my forehead in frustration. The Fromm Players, with pianist Jordan Marzan, played gamely and athletically, and to be fair there were moments of cold lyricism that were executed perfectly. But the lingering image is of Max Grafe, credited with “electronics”, sitting at the sample-loaded keyboard, pressing a single key to allow another squib of electronica into the mix. As we approached the conclusion, there was a long moment of sound dissolving into nothingness, given over entirely to the electronics, and so we watched the talented young musicians sit there, motionless, silent, waiting for the piece to end. Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine. The post FCM Opens Mixed Bag of Modernity appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .