MusicNOW leads off with a trio of intriguing new works

Tue Oct 22, 2013 at 4:11 pm

By Michael Cameron

It’s likely that none of the three substantial works on the MusicNOW program Monday at Harris theater were known to anyone in the audience, and, despite their considerable credits, rarely have these composers’ works been programmed in this area. CSO composers-in-residence Mason Bates and Anna Clyne deserve extra credit for bringing their work to wider local attention, even if the pieces made a mixed first impression.

The easiest to describe using familiar models was Donnacha Dennehy’s Stainless Staining for live piano with a recorded soundtrack of piano sounds. According to the composer, the material was derived from “samples of a piano retuned to provide a massive harmonic spectrum of 100 overtones…” While this may be too formidable a concept for the average listener, the more obvious and meaningful reference point is minimalism generally, and the Bang on a Can variant specifically (“Post-Bang”, perhaps?). The concept of a single live instrument with recorded multiples of the same instrument is by now quite familiar, as was the unwavering pulse, persistent tonality, and the deliberate unveiling of each idea.

This attractive piece is skillfully assembled from its source materials, and doesn’t feel unjustly extended at 14 minutes. But at first hearing there seems to be little to distinguish it from its predecessors, and the mildly subversive aura that was originally part of the post-minimalist aesthetic subsided long ago. Kudos to pianist Amy Briggs for her iron chops and formidable stamina.

Anders Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli also begins with a minimalist idea of sorts, but generated from far more illusive techniques. Using a concept akin to Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie, a single pitch in multiple octaves is split and layered among multiple voices in a 19-piece ensemble.

Other ideas eventually emerge, but the general spirit remains playful, dense and kinetic.
Among many memorable moments was a lyrical oboe exclamation (Xiomara Mass) and a deliciously odd final bit of double bass schmaltz (Alexander Hanna). Conductor Cristian Macelaru realized the complex score with skill and obvious relish. With all of its use of contemporary techniques, the overall impression was not unlike that of a breezy 18th-century divertimento.

The title of Benedict Mason’s film with live score is a fake Chinese character, a mischievous ploy that neatly telegraphs the frisky allure of his 23-minute bit of music theater/performance art. The images are largely comprised of scenes of everyday street life in Hong Kong, many taken from restaurants inside and out. Others include various views of the skyline, including one with a gigantic head of pale green napa cabbage as a stand-in for a skyscraper.

Among other targets, Mason was taking aim at stereotypical Hollywood appropriations of Asian culture. Most notable was an amusing (if on the nose) send-up of Chinese folk music clich├ęs, buttressed with images of brightly hued swimming carp.

The musicians were stationed in various sub-groups on stage and off, intoning layered fragments that neatly echoed the disembodied images on screen. On center stage was a low string trio (two cellos, one bass), while other groups moved about on and off stage as their role in the musical fabric suggested. Overall, it was an engaging bit of theater, enthusiastically received.

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