Harvard Group for New Music; Firebird Ensemble

April 29, 2009 at 7:55 am 1 comment


The Harvard Group for New Music gave a concert last Saturday, with performance by White Rabbit, the ensemble in residence for HGNM, and numerous guests. Fighting back a stubbornly hot hall – which would not yield to even the opening of the windows, works by Christopher Hasty, Jean-François Charles, Ulrich Kreppein, Martin Bresnick, and Tolga Yayalar were given a hearing. 

Hasty, a music theorist at Harvard, wrote a duet for violin and viola, Enfolding Two – Unfolding You, played by Gabe and Jason Fisher. I had heard Gabe practicing the violin part quite a bit, so it is always fun to hear his part come together with the rest of the score. Hasty’s piece was beautifully discursive, at times (especially in the second violin solo) reminding me of the agogic unfolding of a solo Bach Suite, at other times possessed of rhapsodic oratory. The oaken register of the low viola and free, overlapping cadenzas for both instruments added up to a wonderfully effective opening of the concert.

I haven’t heard a piece by Charles in some time, and I know I haven’t heard a piece for solo bass for years and years. So his work Aqua Solo, performed by Alex Tarbert and based on an earlier work Aqua, was a real treat. It was a set of two pieces — I’ve tried to write pairs of pieces before and always find them difficult to balance. But the logical development of the ascending gesture in the first piece (“Prelude,” which Charles tell us “reminds us that the double bass is a descendent of the viol”), made one listener feel as if something deep and ominous was trying to surface. The second piece, “Blues,” which was all pizzicato, showed a remarkable sensitivity to the possibilities of the solo bass.

I had heard any of Kreppein’s music before but his concise Abendlied was remarkable for its interiority and meditative character. Michael Norsworthy was brilliant, as usual, with his serenely measured clarinet tone. 

I’ve liked what I’ve heard of Martin Bresnick’s music to date. Like some idée fixe, I first encountered his work at the Ives Vocal Marathon, and this concert ended both halves with works by him. The first half concluded with the whimsical Songs of the Mouse People, based on a short work by Kafka. Ben Schwartz and Samuel Solomon gave a lively, playful performance of a piece which achieved something that is rare for me, at least – the title reinforcing what I am listening to! Bresnick’s works on the second half, the consecutively performed Bucket Rider and Be Just! featured exquisite instrumentation (clarinet and e-bow electric guitar? Can’t go wrong with that.) and brought the concert to a close with a percussive tour de force (heavy chains dropping on a bass drum – my neighbors hate it when I do that in my house). 

Yayalar’s In the Temporal Gardens was the other work on the second half, and was dedicated to Seda (who you’ve perhaps read about already). The two of them have collaborated on this piece for some time, and you can hear a podcast about it on Seda’s web site. A extended work of ferocious difficulty for solo piano, it evoked an almost pavlovian association in me to Ruggles (so it goes when writing a dissertation), with its reliance on multiphonics (although Yayalar’s vocabulary of resonance was completely distinctive), and at other times achieved a kind of pointilistic intensity that I found quite moving.

What is the sound of nature? Is it the even triads of a string group? The ascending overtones of a harp being plucked? The silent vibration of a tuning fork held to a singer’s ear? A flute mimicking the bray of a long extinct species? Such were the questions on my mind Tuesday night, when I attended the premiere of The Origin Cycle at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The work was the commission of Jane Sheldon (who also sang the work) and Peter Godfrey-Smith. It featured seven separate settings of texts by Charles Darwin (it is, after all, his 200th birthday this year), written by seven Australian composers: Elliott Gyger, Kate Neal, Elena Kats-Chernin, Nicholas Vines, Dan Walker, Paul Stanhope, and Rosalind Page.

The concert was beautifully conceived: the performers played in front of one of the museum’s great holdings, a 42 foot long Kronosaurus (think killer whale with jaws that could swallow a Volkswagen), and the chairs (it was standing room only) were arrayed around the triceratops head and the coelacanth – one of my favorite specimens in the museum, a beautifully preserved example of a so-called “living fossil.” I also couldn’t help but notice that the audience didn’t seem to be the typical new music crowd – I didn’t recognize many faces – and was thrilled at the imagination Firebird showed in drawing people in to a concert of premieres.

Sheldon sang with an intense, pure lyricism, and did remarkable justice to the poetry of Darwin’s writings. I hadn’t realized the elegance of Darwin’s prose style, a style that seems surprisingly lucid given the arid tone of most scientific articles today. Some of the composers set out to make the words crystal clear, others seemed to want to make the music a mass of connective tissue, with tendrils, syllables, and bursts from the instruments creeping out from the primordial soup. Both approaches, it seemed, were appropriate to the occasion. Firebird apparently has plans to record the suite; I should very much like to have such a recording in my library.

Entry filed under: Review.

The rise of the shadow residency How to back up your dissertation – really.

1 Comment

  • 1. PianoFan  |  October 21, 2009 at 6:50 pm


    Megacool Blog indeed!… if anyone else has anything it would be much appreciated. Great website Enjoy!…


Amusicology is an online forum for musicologists, academic or otherwise. Although Ryan Raul Banagale and Drew Massey are its founders and chief contributors, we welcome guest submissions. Please let us know if you would like to contribute a guest posting. Comments are always welcome and encouraged!

Please bookmark us or add our RSS feed.

Bookmark and Share


%d bloggers like this: