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Posted by gustav at 09:01AM, Thursday, December 02nd, 2010

New modern music in Cambridge: Xenia Pestova and Gabriela Diaz perform Bunk and Xenakis at a BMOP Club Concert

Last night (Feb. 9, 2011) we attended what was perhaps the most interesting program of any concert I've attended in the Boston area: works for toy piano, piano, and violin, performed with competence and gusto, all but one accompanied by tape or live electronics, and all but one by young, living composers

This was a Boston Modern Orchestra Project Club Concert at Oberon in Cambridge.

The program was:

Derek Hurst: An Wem: Notes from Underground (2007) for Toy Piano and Electronics
Christopher Bailey: Abstraction 1 (2005/1995) for Violin and Tape
Mark Applebaum: Pre-composition (2002) for 8-channel Tape
Lou Bunk: Being and Becoming (2010) for Toy Piano and Electronics
Iannis Xenakis: Mikka (1971) for Solo Violin
Hans Tutschku: Zellen Linien (2007) for Piano and Live Electronics

Pianist Xenia Pestova
Violinist Gabriela Diaz

The setting was essentially a nightclub -- drinks, waitresses, big neon sign above the stage -- intimate and friendly. The combination of a very clearly-intentioned program and the hip venue was astonishing and unique for this area, where musical tastes tend towards either the scions of stodgy 1970s rock and roll bands or sloppy performances of stodgy 19th-Century composers, attended by the inflexible, elderly, and occasionally insane.

The first two pieces struck me as similar in many ways: the sounds generated by the acoustic instruments were echoed to a degree by very similar sounds coming from the electronic ones, and both gradually devolved into a somewhat flat new-wavey texture, punctuated by the occasional 1960s-style electronic bloop reminiscent of Stockhausen tape pieces. An Wem involved the performer activating electronics using a foot pedal. Abstraction 1 was notable for Gabriela Diaz's literally perfect intonation in performing a challenging, non-diatonic part. Both performers had the necessary stage presence to pull of this kind of stuff (toy piano, for Pete's sake!), and despite the slightly derivative electronic sounds, the pieces were engaging and well-received.

Pre-composition was an indulgent 8-track vocal piece performed (into tape) by the composer. It made for an entertaining and occasionally funny interlude, but as far as musical meat goes, left me wanting.

Being and Becoming was the most interesting piece to me. It opened with a short, quick motive repeated solo by the (miked) toy piano, each repetition separated by an almost awkwardly amount of time. There was a striking contrast with the previous pieces through this opening section: none of those had really incorporated any silences. Gradually, the motive started to morph and mutate, and electronic sounds crept in -- as before, often activated by foot pedal. The texture became much thicker, with Pestova eventually pulling out a violin bow and drawing it across parts of the toy piano, the squeaks picked up by the microphone. Pestova was wonderfully elaborate when she whipped each page of music off the stand as she was done with it, laying them theatrically on the floor. At the last page -- mounted on what looked like a piece of fiberboard -- she stood up, music and bow in hand, and walked haltingly across the stage, down the steps, and around the audience, again drawing the well-rosined bow across the piece of board. This was one of those performance art pieces where the audience reaction was perhaps the most interesting part of the performance: it was fascinating to see the different reactions. Various audience members were sitting erect with stony expressions, stiffly facing forward, unwilling to acknowledge that there was no longer anything to see in front of them. Others were peering, lips pursed and stern-faced, around them. A tiny few were laughing. I was watching Pestova as she walked, and grinning like an idiot. The music faded out, and received the most tepid applause of any of the pieces -- including the Applebaum one, for which there was no performer.

One notable aspect of the Bunk piece for me was that it was the only one on the program to have a very clear structure -- minimalist start, building to a thicker texture incorporating electronics, then some extended performance aspects, and finally abandoning the piano entirely. Unfamiliar music is difficult for listeners to engage, and aspects like this make engagement much easier. Also notable is that, even in this explicitly modern show, with an audience presumably into modern music, any sort of performance art is too much for Cambridge.

The Xenakis started with an expanding set of glissandi on the G string, gradually growing in interval and suddenly bursting across the other strings. This is a terribly virtuosic piece -- I am at a loss to think how a performer starts to learn it, unless she's gifted with perfect pitch. There's no melody of distinct pitches to learn, here, just constantly-expanding glisses that extend to various non-diatonic outer pitches and then contract again. Ms Diaz's performance, and her presence, were well up to the task. This was some of the most adept playing of modern works I've heard, easily bettering any of the recent Bang on a Can sets I've attended.

The Tutschku piece did nothing for me. It incorporated real-time digital processing of and reaction to sounds coming from the piano. A chord might trigger a heavily-processed repetition of the preceding passage, or the issuance of an entirely new motive, from the speakers. The atonal harmonies and structure were notey and impregnable, and the digital processing and electronic sounds, while technically impressive, added nothing to the music for me. There was no entry point at which to engage the music, and nothing, despite the obvious effort that went into both writing and performing the piece, that struck me as intellectually intriguing or new. This just was not my thing. Mr Tutschku has studied and taught at IRCAM, worked with Stockhausen, and teaches at Harvard. I think it says a lot about the state of composition in academia today that the piece by the most credentialed living composer represented here was, to me, the most utterly uninteresting, humorless, and emotionally vapid.

Two great pieces, two at least engaging and well-performed ones, one dud, and one amusing intermezzo amount to a truly impressive concert. I am delighted at the breadth of musical ideas and styles represented in this concert of a handful of pieces by composers (for the most part) of similar ages for similar instrumentation. I may think that pieces like Tutschku's is what's killing classical music, but no doubt others would say the same of Bunk, and I'm happy to see room for both on a program. It's reassuring to find at last that there is in fact interesting modern music being performed outside of music schools in the Boston area, even if the audience reception is still lacking.


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