By Caldwell Titcomb
Attention has shifted from the very old to the very new: the Boston Early Music Festival ended on June 14, and June 13 saw the start of the eight-day 2009 Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice at the New England Conservatory (NEC).
The annual enterprise’s acronym – SICPP – has engendered its colloquial nickname of “Sick Puppy.” The founding artistic director is the indefatigable NEC piano faculty member Stephen Drury (b. 1955), who oversees all the daily masterclasses, lectures, and workshops for the enrolled members.
The public face of the undertaking is a series of six free concerts Monday through Saturday in one of the NEC’s three auditoria. This year’s special composer-in-residence is the Briton Jonathan Harvey (b. 1939), seven of whose works are programmed for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
I attended the opening concert on Monday, which offered music by five composers. First up was composer-percussionist Scott Deal, who holds music degrees from three institutions and is now a professor at Indiana University. He played his short and ebullient “Ester Parade” (2008), accompanied by an abstract video by Jordan Munson (also on the Indiana faculty) that emphasized the colors blue, green, and black. Munson’s “Shot and Abandoned” (2008), with a mostly green video, offered a series of objects that alternated with facial portraits that quickly vanished; Deal’s percussion playing here was restrained, and augmented by a computer tape. Deal’s own “Jackwalk” (2009) had him adding to the sonic mix a bass drum operated by a foot pedal. In all three pieces Deal exhibited phenomenal virtuosity.
Edgar Barroso (b. 1977), an experienced cellist, is a native of Mexico currently working toward a Ph.D. in composition at Harvard. His 13-minute “Logos” (2008) was, he says, based on the text “Against image. About Poetry and Philosophy” by the Mexican philosopher Santiago Espinosa, along with Aristotle’s definition of ‘logos’ as “argument from reason, one of the three modes of persuasion.” A composer can draw his inspiration from anything he likes, but in this case the sources are not meaningful to an audience – or at least to me. The work is scored for violin (Gabriela Diaz), cello (Benjamin Schwartz), and piano (Yukiko Takagi), and is rhythmically demanding enough to benefit from a conductor (Jeffrey Means). The piece employs effective string glissandi, and the pianist occasionally has to put a hand inside the piano to sound the strings. The work ends nicely with a string swoop and dying piano.
Nicholas Vines (b. 1976 in Australia), received a 2007 Ph.D. from Harvard, where he has remained as a music lecturer. His “Firestick” (1998-1999, though the program booklet incorrectly lists this as a premiere) was engendered by portions of “The Future Eaters,” a treatise by the Australian scientist Tim Flanner. The title refers to the development by the Aborigines of “firestick farming,” the deliberate lighting of small fires in a mosaic-like pattern to limit the number and ferocity of major brushfires. The arrival of Europeans vitiated this system, which it is thought could well be resuscitated today.
Lasting nearly a half hour, the difficult work is divided into three main sections: “Destruction,” “Desolation – Rejuvenation,” and “Regeneration.” It is scored for a chamber orchestra of three clarinets, two horns, four violins, two violas, two cellos, contrabass, and percussion. Drury conducted the somewhat flexible group known as the Callithumpian Consort, whose clarinets were not always sufficiently audible. The opening section proved really exciting. Later passages for vibraphone over soft sustained contrabass notes could stand some shortening. Especially striking was the periodic punctuation by whip-stick blows. The sizeable audience led the composer to take two bows.
There was one old work on the program – by old I mean written way back in 1943. This was the “Visions de l’Amen” by Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), a two-piano composition written for himself and his student Yvonne Loriod (who would later become his second wife). This is one of the supreme works of the 20th century. It lasts nearly an hour, and is divided into seven movements (Messiaen considered seven the “perfect” number). Roman Catholicism was never far from his music, which also drew on rhythmic techniques of Indian music as well as canons and palindromes from the Western tradition. This concert presented two movements: the fourth (“Amen of Desire”) and the seventh (“Amen of the Consummation”). Messiaen’s characteristically gorgeous harmonic clusters were in plentiful supply, as were his rhythmic intricacies, leading to the concluding major triad amid a context of jubilant pealing bells. The expert pianists were Paul Hanson and Joanne Kong. I would gladly have stayed to hear the other five movements of this masterpiece.
The final “Sick Puppy” concert (in the NEC’s Brown Hall) will last at least six hours, and takes place on Saturday, June 20, beginning at 4 o’clock. This marathon occasion will offer music by at least two dozen composers – both famous and little known – and listeners are welcome to come and go as they please.