The composer and Bowdoin College professor Elliott Schwartz has written: “Nowhere does the study of American music history reveal as rich a spectrum of styles, traditions, personalities and important works as in… New England.” Earlier this month, on the seventh, the Mimesis Ensemble demonstrated the truth behind this theory. The New York City-based group, in conjunction with Northeastern University, presented Boston Currents, a concert of chamber music by noted Boston composers.
Concerts of contemporary music often overload on esoteric, excessively abstruse pieces. The academic overtones of such concerts can require some initiation for the listener. The program presented on this night struck an appropriate middle ground—it challenged the audience without alienating.
A rare treat even for a contemporary music concert was the presence of all composers. Among these was Boston mainstay Elliott Schwartz, whose Memorial in Two Parts (1988) was a highlight of the first half. Ethan Wood and Brett Hodgdon performed this virtuosic piece with flair and sensitivity. The first movement’s powerful, gritty opening evolves into a lively dance wherein echoes of Mozart and Gershwin can be faintly discerned, though the composer has only preserved their essence. These allusions continue into the next movement, which begins with a pointillist conversation and closes with a Romantic scherzo evoking Schubert.
Mohammed Fairouz’s solo guitar work Airs (2008) was performed by Maarten Stragler, whose sensitive playing was unfortunately no match for the performance space. A curtain behind the performers did not mitigate the effects of the vast nave and high ceiling of Northeastern’s Fenway Center, and this intimate piece required especially strained listening. Still, Fairouz’s juxtaposition of modal, Middle Eastern music and strains of Baroque figuration with modernist techniques in the third movement were subtly crafted and executed.
The concert’s second half took an unexpected turn with Ronald Bruce Smith’s Something Suspicious (Small) (2006), for bass clarinet and live electronics. Erin Svoboda masterfully negotiated the difficulties of both the score and the sequencing. With the composer at the mixing board and laptop, Svoboda’s erratic figures and slap-tonguing became processed and modulated in real-time, rendering an alien-like duet between the bass clarinet and a frequently unrecognizable doppelganger.
For all of the experimentalism on display, the concert ended with one of the most exquisite and also oldest pieces. Gunther Schuller’s String Quartet No. 1 (1958) was performed with exceptional energy and crisp ensemble by four outstanding chamber musicians—violinists Ethan Wood and Elisa Friedrich, violist Jessica Meyer, and cellist Michael Katz. Initially calling to mind the string writing of Penderecki and Lutoslawski, the piece soon comes into its own. The elaborate counterpoint in the first movement is propelled by a fugal treatment of a rhythmic motive recalling Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but with a complexity that often fragments the ensemble into four independent solo instruments. The second movement similarly spins a yarn through a dizzying cascade of intertwining phrases, and the last movement’s lush sonorities break down into a frenzied and unstable finale.
Other exceptional performances included Francesca Anderegg’s fiery interpretation of John Heiss’ Episode for Solo Violin (1981), a mercurial jewel of a piece that, ending suddenly, leaves the listener pleasantly unfulfilled, and Anthony De Ritis’ Dust and Roses (2004), a setting of seven poems by Paul De Ritis, for flute, viola, and harp. The trio (Jonathan Engle, flute; Colin Belisle, viola; Meghan Caulkett, harp) deeply explored the melancholy, symbolist poems without an iota of melodrama. Rounded out with music by Yehudi Wyner, Alex Stein, and Malcolm Peyton, the concert truly displayed the exciting diversity of current New England-based composers.