New Music from Boston and Beijing, 11/23/09

Last night I attended a wonderful concert of new music at the The Fenway Center hosted by Northeastern University and featuring compositions from the New England Conservatory and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

A program of  electroacoustic, mixed media, with and w/out western and eastern instruments I came to the night with excitement and a bit of trepidation, having recalled the years of attending crazy long new music concerts as a student at the New England Conservatory .  For those who know me, I do not say a concert was wonderful often, but this had the energy, variety and quality to keep me on the edge of my seat.

The first half featured compositions by Ronald Bruce Smith (NU), Beijing students Dou Tian Tian (tape), Yao Xintong, Liu Lingzi and Anthony Paul De Ritis (NU).  The language was tonal and the cycling of patterns was evident without taking over the pieces; the music shined through.  Vicky Chow, piano, and Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone, gave exciting performances, though I would like to hear Demetrius play the De Ritis work again in a setting more suited for 4-channel audio.

After a brief intermission Demetrius Spaneas again took the stage but with his clarinet and went into the at times funky new work by Wang Xiaohang.  I felt myself torn between klezmer (it happens when I hear solo clarinet) and really cool movie music. ‘Slinky’ by Michael Frengel with the composer performing took the concert in a new direction.  First, I haven’t heard a steel string guitar played on a new music concert in years if ever and the effects, with their bubbling/gurgling sound took a bit of getting use to.   I am not a fan of picked steel strings but this piece went beyond the usual.  Using a foot pedal to cue the electronics, the work traveled through a variety of effects and textures with harmonics and a jazzy refrain being most predominant of the non-prerecorded music.  It left a smile on my face.  I look forward to hearing more of his works.

French composer and professor of music at the Beijing Conservatory, Benoit Granier’s ‘Finding Takehashi’ for saxophone and electronics roared over the stage next.  Mr. Spaneas gave a virtuosic performance of this demanding if not maniacal work.  Extremely fast gesture full of leaps in all directions by the saxophone follows a brief electronic pulse. Maybe Mr. Granier was trying to tire Mr. Spaneas, but the saxophonist held his own and finished this exciting work with a bell chiming flourish.

‘Echoing Spaces’ for Mixed Media by Dennis Miller was not my cup of tea.  The video made me feel a bit nauseous with its choice of hues, I saw a constant movement of decay and rot. I can’t recall exactly the recorded music. John Mallia’s ‘Interzonal Hap 2’ for guzheng, erhu, saxophone, and electronics closed the concert.  A highly technical piece it also possessed moments of real beauty, most notably heard in the saxophone and erhu lines.

Special mention should be made to erhu player Zhou Lingyan for her beautiful and haunting performance on the instrument. Featured on three works, she did a masterful job.  Thanks to organizers Anthony De Ritis and Benoit Granier for their work.

Overall I felt the compositions with live instruments and electronics were well balanced in their compositions and in performance.  Northeastern’s Fenway Center is a fine place for such a concert with its balance of beautiful church construction and modern upgrades.  It complemented the concerts mix of modern and traditional.

As with all concerts I have to wonder ‘what is new’?.  Much of the electronic music (tape) or parts thereof seemed straight out of a modern television show or action film, while the use of Chinese traditional instruments made new music seem at times old.  The interplay of new and old, east and west will continue and I look forward to playing, listening and experiencing the journey.

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