By Caldwell Titcomb
Musica Viva, under its founding director Richard Pittman, kicked off its 41st season on September 25 with an all-American concert in the Tsai Performance Center. The organization is exclusively devoted to contemporary music – on this occasion extending from 1982 to the present.
Opening the concert was “Grooved Surfaces” by Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956), chairman of the composition department at the New England Conservatory, who wrote the piece in 1996 as a commission from Musica Viva. This is a completely engrossing piece lasting twelve minutes. The composer says the title refers to “grooves” or rhythmical patterns – a somewhat curious meaning; but he can call them whatever he likes if he writes music this good.
Gandolfi reveals that this piece was influenced by Ghanaian music, but the listener need not know that to enjoy it. The first movement, “Frame Shifting,” has bouncy rhythm, with a lot of violin pizzicato and prominent vibraphone until its tapers off at the end. The second movement, “Pitching Rotation,” uses a pentatonic scale that transposes cyclically until it returns to the starting point. Here the percussionist switches to a marimba, and there is particularly fine writing for the cello. It ends abruptly, as does the third movement, “Flipside,” in which the percussionist employs a row of drums and a woodblock.
There followed “The Seven Ages” by Pulitzer winner and MIT professor John Harbison, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday. The title has nothing to do with Jacques’ speech in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” but is instead a setting of six poems from Louise Glück’s 2002 collection. The work had its premiere in New York last April, and this was its first Boston performance. The soloist was mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal, joined by Ann Bobo, flute; William Kirkley, clarinet; Bayla Keyes, violin; Geoffrey Burleson, piano, Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello; and Robert Schulz, vibraphone. I was especially taken by the lovely third song entitled “Decade” and the fifth, “Summer Night,” with its sustained high A and long instrumental epilogue.
After intermission came the world premiere of “Images” by Richard Cornell, a music professor at Boston University. This ten -minute work contained two pieces: the first, “The Warring of the Sparrows,” mimics the “chattering, fluttering, and occasional screaming” of the birds near the composer’s studio; the second, “Star Laden Sky,” is a nocturne. The former uses drums of different pitches in an entertaining way, but the latter is not harmonically interesting.
The concert officially concluded with the “Triple Duo” of Elliott Carter, who is still composing furiously at the age of 100. The work was premiered in New York by the estimable Fires of London in 1982. As the title suggests, the six players function as three pairs: flute/clarinet; violin/cello; and piano/percussion. The musicians played with precision. But I have to admit that I have a blindspot concerning Carter’s oeuvre. I don’t care for any of his music written after the late 1940s. Here the clarinetist had to take up three sizes of instrument, and the flutist occasionally tootled on a piccolo. But the whole enterprise added up to twenty-two minutes of unrelieved boredom. One welcomed the brief encore: Bernard Hoffer’s delightfully rambunctious country dance from “A Boston Cinderella” (2000).
The next Music Viva concert takes place on November 20, with the following program: Pulitzer-winner Joseph Schwantner’s “Elixir” ; the world premiere of Brandeis professor David Rakowski’s “Micon,” with pianist Geoffrey Burleson; the first Boston performance of Chris Arrell’s “Narcissus/echo”; and Pamela Dellal returning for Charles Ives’ “Five Street Songs,” arranged by Richard Pittman.