Brave New Works at The Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival

[The preview for this review can be found here.]

Good lord. It’s already the last week of February, and I’ve definitely gotten behind. I ended up not making it to even half of the things I’d planned on in February due to a lot of other stuff going on, but one of the concerts I did make it to was Brave New Works at The Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival a couple of weeks ago. The program opened with Sunji Hong’s “Shades of Raindrops” which had nice textures and evocative sounds but lacked structure and as a consequence seemed a bit aimless. The same was true of “Wax Lyrical” by Chris Gendall which opened the second half of the concert, although his musical language sounded much more dated in comparison, with its Bartok pizzes and string glissandi.

Forrest Pierce’s “The Black Sword of Sappho”, scored for harp and soprano, was also piecemeal, although much more convincingly so as the texts were from the fragments of the ancient Greeks poet’s writings from “a handful of broken pottery” according to the program note. The performance directions even indicate (rather preciously) that the order of the short movements should be determined by writing their names on “a vessel” and smashing it on stage. The vocal writing, which Pierce says is for “hypersoprano”, features wide leaps, and BNW’s soprano Jennifer Goltz hit all the notes, although she didn’t always make them feel musical due to punching them too hard in general. However her monochromatic attacks may well have been due to her obvious hoarseness due to illness. She fared better in the melismatic passages, though, bringing a confident warmth and smoothness to her tone and beautifully bringing out every note (leading me to hope we get to hear her take on some of the coloratura standards before too long). Although diatonic, the work features fresh harp writing at every moment, and harpist Amy Ley brought excellent support to the partnership.

Mason Bates often uses electronics in his compositions, but his work “String Band”, for piano trio (including prepared piano), was a crowd-pleasing reworking of “twangy” old-timey Americana. The work doesn’t offer anything too deep or surprising and doesn’t quite transcend its source material, but it’s certainly a fun, well-paced romp, and it received a compelling performance by the group.

The final work of the evening was “Objects and Intervals”, a premier for the entire ensemble by Andy Vores. Like the rest of the evening the works’ two movements are also fragmented in many ways, although here the sections feel more purposeful. Vores’ works always have an element of surprise, and this work is idiosyncratically constructed in that after a humorous quodlibet of famous classical melodies from various eras the texture becomes very thin and focuses on the upper strings as they create a gauzy haze of quarter tones around a very tonal center. These are “interrupted” by wordless melismatic sections for the soprano which are surprisingly moving in the way they evoke almost primal cries of emotion. Although the program note indicates the sections are variations (or “compressions”) of the opening source material, the connections are often so buried and tenuous that the work doesn’t feel completely coherent. But as with all new works repeated listenings will certainly illuminate, and kudos to Brave New Works for bringing such a vibrant program to Boston in such polished performances.

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