Category Archives: music

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.

Upcoming for February

Because of the Boston Conservatory’s annual New Music Festival, this first week of February has ended up being jam-packed. So much so that due to conflicts there are some things I want to see but won’t be able to. Here’s what I’ve got lined up, and the ones I’m sadly going to have to miss out on:

  • Friday, February 6: Passion Pit, Paper Route, Cale Parks Downstairs at The Middle East (18+, $12). I’d heard Passion Pit’s track “Sleepyhead” and then liked their other tracks on their MySpace page. The way I’ve been describing them is, “Like MGMT, but much less annoying and more interesting.” Won’t be able to make this one, though, due to the conflict below.
  • Friday, February 6: Brave New Works: The Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival, as usual, has a load of worthwhile concerts. This one features a new work by Andy Vores entitled “Objects and Intervals”. It’s immediately preceded by a “prelude concert” by the Ludovico Ensemble of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments for violin and soprano. Their soprano, Aliana de la Guardia, has yet to disappoint, and after the publicity of the Sellars/Upshaw performance at Lincoln Center this past fall I’m guessing I won’t be the only one interested in this thorny work.
  • Saturday, February 7 (2 p.m., All Saints Parish, Brookline): Benjamin Britten Noye’s Fludde: David Hoose, Music Director; Lynn Torgove, Stage Director; Members of Cantata Singers and PALS Children’s Chorus; Alysoun Kegel, Artistic Director; Young instrumentalists from Boston area arts organizations. Part of Cantata Singers‘ Britten season. Should be fun.
  • Saturday, February 7 (8 p.m., First Church in Cambridge): Sarasa Ensemble, Music of Handel, Purcell, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Dominique Labelle, soprano and Michael Chance, countertenor: Part of the Boston Early Music Festival.
  • Sunday, February 8: Momenta Quartet: Also part of the Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival. Featuring Glass’s Quartet #5 and a premiere by faculty member Dalit Warshaw for theremin and string quartet with the composer playing theremin. This evening also includes a prelude concert by the Ludovico Ensemble, Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry.
  • Sunday, February 15 (3 p.m.): Chameleon Arts Ensemble “a tale that’s told in ancient song”. Especially looking forward to violinist Joanna Kurkowicz‘s performance of Ravel’s fiery crowd-pleaser Tzigane. You can get 1/2-price tickets from goldstar.com and if you register using this link I get a small commission. Whoo!
  • Sunday, February 15: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Pants Yell! and The Depreciation Guild Upstairs at The Middle East (18+, $9). Another show M wanted to go to, but I quickly got into The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s shoegaze-y brand of pop as well as The Depreciation Guild’s dreamy electronics. If you like M83, you’ll probably like The Depreciation Guild, and in fact at the moment I actually prefer the latter.
  • Phew! Looks like it’s going to be a marthon two weeks. Hopefully I’ll have enough stamina to get through it all. Stay tuned …

    Cantata Singers’ “All Britten”

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

    A bit late for the review, but I did end up attending the Cantata Singers’ “All Britten” concert a couple of weeks ago. To recap, the program was as follows:

    Friday, January 16, 8:00 pm – Jordan Hall
    Lachrymae: Roger Tapping, viola
    Five Flower Songs
    Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings: Michael Slattery, tenor; Michael Thompson, horn
    Phaedra: Janna Baty, mezzo-soprano
    Rejoice in the Lamb, orch. Imogen Holst: First Boston performance of chorus-orchestral version

    The reviews in The Boston Globe and the Phoenix were both highly complimentary. As for me, I fully enjoyed “Lachrymae”, the opener. I found the orchestra to be a bit subdued (although their performance could be interpreted as “subtle” I suppose), but the violist, Tapping, was an expressive and agile performer. “Phaedra” was also beautifully and intensely performed. The soloist was soprano Janna Baty, and her performance was fully (and appropriately) dramatic and operatic. The works for chorus were also highlights: the “Five Flower Songs” were nicely presented, and the chorus especially revelled in the rollicking “Ballad of Green Broom”. Likewise they brought out all the humor of “Rejoice in the Lamb” and, if not quite convincing me it was more than a curio, enabled me to enjoy it nonetheless.

    The biggest disappointment was the concert’s centerpiece, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, which is too bad since the work seems to be done far more rarely than it should. I found the young tenor Michael Slattery’s performance to be mannered, on-the-surface playacting that lacked any real depth. His sotto voce, breathy melodramatics grew wearying, despite ample and strong support from the orchestra. A significant dip in an otherwise enjoyable evening, but regardless it was an attractive program overall and I’m looking forward to enjoying more of the Cantata Singers Britten season. More reviews to come, as the performance of Noye’s Fludde on February 7 is fast approaching.

    Heroes: 80’s night at T.T.’s

    I’ve been meaning to post about a dance night I go to regularly called “Heroes”. It’s an 80’s/new wave type of night, but don’t be surprised if you hear some newer retro tunes by the likes of Cut Copy or some classic helium-voiced Madonna thrown in. The tunes are courtesy of my favorite DJ in Boston, Chris Ewen, of Figures on a Beach and Future Bible Heroes fame, among other things. He used to spin at ye olde Manray, now defunct, which I used to frequent all too regularly in college, even on weeknights when I had a class at 9 a.m. the following day. I blame my less-than-stellar GPA entirely on him.

    The 80’s night was homeless and floated around town when Manray closed, but has since found a semi-permanent home at T.T.’s where they put it on at least a couple Saturdays a month (be sure to check the website to see if they’re on for a given week). The music is as good as ever, although the crowd has definitely been a bit hit or miss at times. The crowd at Manray used to be pretty consistent, and although some regulars such as myself have made the transition and kept the scene relatively indie there are some nights that are almost painfully fratty and “girlfriends’ night out”. Which isn’t me being a snob, honest. I’m all for people appreciating good music, but it’s just that it kind of kills the dreamy Joy Division mood when drunk girls and guys are grinding on the dance floor and/or spilling beer on me. Anyway, I’m definitely not complaining too much and fully appreciate Heroes’ new home. Long live Heroes at T.T.’s!

    And if you’re looking for some links, Heroes has a page at MySpace. I also came across this set of photos from maybe early last year at Boston.com.

    The Smittens and Cotton Candy at The Middle East

    [The preview for this review is here.]

    On New Year’s I caught Cotton Candy upstairs at The Middle East. Their set was pretty good. The setlist was very similar to the performance I’d seen at The Plough and Stars, although there the duo benefited from the intimate setting. At The Middle East their quirkiness and sparse presentation didn’t quite fill the space, and it took awhile for the audience to really “get” their unique brand of humor. But M and I both enjoyed their set (although I found myself wanting to hear more of their own songs instead of the jingles and covers, enjoyable as they are), and the addition of a drummer on one song was a welcome surprise. We also both finally got around to looking up the origins of their closer song, which is actually entitled “Freelove Freeway”. Turns out it’s from the British The Office. A video of the uncut version of the song from the show can be found here. M also did some research and found a nice preview of Cotton Candy and the show at the Weekly Dig and a rough-around-the-edges-but-endearing performance of theirs from May 22 of last year for WMBR’s “Phoning It In”.

    Part of the reason it took a while for the crowd to settle into Cotton Candy’s set was because they had been preceded by the much more rollicking and freewheelin’ group The Smittens, from Vermont. I’d heard a bit of them beforehand online and had found them to be a bit too twee for me, but live I was won over by their humor and easygoing stage presence. I’ve gotten a bit tired of boy/girl vocals, but I really enjoyed how the three vocalists in The Smittens work in tandem, at times trading verses within the same song, and the fun and memorable vocal arrangements they come up with. One highlight in particular was “Half My Heartbeats” which featured band member Dana Kaplan making the best of the circumstances and playing a single castanet, and ending up making it look like nothing so much as some strange sort of miniature Muppet. It was pretty great.

    So that was a big win for the night, and it’s great to start the year with another band to add to my list of bands to keep track of. Their official site is here and there’s a fair amount of other audio on their Last.fm page as well. [Edited: Can I just say I’m totally digging their recordings now? I’m definitely going to pick up a CD or two when they’re next in town.]

    Missed the first band and stayed for just a bit of the final band One Happy Island. Unlike The Smittens I was pretty much completely turned off by OHI live, who on mp3 sound fine, but live just came across as really fratty. Which is not to my taste, but if you’re a fan of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel or ones that feature trumpet you may enjoy them.

    Upcoming for January

    A bit worn out from the holidays, so don’t have much set for January. Tonight I’m going to the Cotton Candy concert I mentioned previously, part of their “4th Annual Indie Pop New Year’s Day Night”, upstairs at the Middle East. Here’s the schedule, courtesy of M:

      8:45 Cathy Cathodic
      9:30 Smittens
      10:15 Cotton Candy
      11:30 One Happy Island
      Doors 8:30, $9

    The Cantata Singers is in the midst of a season focusing on Benjamin Britten. Hadn’t managed to catch any of their concerts in the fall, but I’m a pretty big fan of Britten and there are three concerts this spring that I’ll definitely be making an effort to get to. The first concert is being presented as part of The New York Times’ 2009 Arts & Leisure Weekend, and you can use the promotional code “NYT09” to get two tickets for the price of one. (The Times’ site also has other arts-related promotions listed in MA for that weekend as well.)

    Here’s the info on the Cantata Singers concerts I’ll probably be checking out, taken from their website:

      Friday, January 16, 8:00 pm – Jordan Hall
      All-Britten
      Lachrymae
      Roger Tapping, viola
      Five Flower Songs
      Phaedra
      Janna Baty, mezzo-soprano
      Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
      Michael Slattery, tenor
      Michael Thompson, horn
      Rejoice in the Lamb, orch. Imogen Holst
      First Boston performance of chorus-orchestral version

      Saturday, February 7, 2 pm — All Saints Parish, Brookline
      Benjamin Britten Noye’s Fludde
      David Hoose, Music Director
      Lynn Torgove, Stage Director
      Members of Cantata Singers and PALS Children’s Chorus
      Alysoun Kegel, Artistic Director
      Young instrumentalists from Boston area arts organizations

      Friday, May 8, 8:00 pm – Jordan Hall
      Benjamin Britten Psalm 150
      Boston Children’s Chorus
      Anthony Trecek-King, Artistic Director
      J.S. Bach Cantata BWV 149,
      “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg in den Hütten der Gerechten”
      Classroom Cantatas Cantata
      First performance
      Student composers from Neighborhood House Charter School
      and Boston Children’s Chorus
      Andy Vores Natural Selection
      First performance
      Britten The Company of Heaven
      Karyl Ryczek, soprano
      William Hite, tenor
      James Petosa, speaker

    While I’m at it, here’s The Phoenix’s preview of the spring classical music offerings. Also, the Boston Metro has a pretty concise listing of the theater and special events for January.

    BSO tickets for under 40

    This is a bit late, but still worth mentioning. The BSO has a program providing $20 tickets (actually it’s $25.50 with handling) for people under 40. Here’s the relevant info:

      Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, $20 tickets are available now through the remainder of the BSO season for patrons under 40 years of age. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis on both the orchestra and balcony levels. You may purchase one pair of tickets per performance but choose as many dates as you like! Purchaser proof of age is required and may be faxed prior to your concert to 617-638-9400, or you may show a photo id at the Box Office when you pick up your tickets. Please include your order number on your fax.

    A pretty great deal any way you look at it, although I’m already going to a few concerts through their Flex Pass program. Hopefully will make it over to Symphony Hall sooner than later, although A and I have had to keep putting it off because of his schedule. Stay tuned.

    Scarce at The Plough and Stars

    So I didn’t make it to the Crystal Stilts or the +/- shows, but I did wind up at The Plough and Stars last week to see this band originally from Rhode Island that M likes called Scarce. (The photo above is from a previous show from this year.) The band has an interesting history involving a near-fatal brain hemorrhage, which you can read about here. That recounting ends with their breakup, but on their MySpace page you can find more information about how they got back together.

    They had a show at T.T.’s a couple weeks ago that I missed, but the show at The Plough and Stars, while probably an anomalous introduction to the group (being acoustic and sans drums), was quite enjoyable. In their acoustic incarnation Chick Graning’s voice contributes a lot to my feeling that the group reminds me of Archers of Loaf’s Eric Bachmann’s subsequent bluesy band Crooked Fingers. There’s also a bit of Frank Black’s solo sound (also bluesy) mixed in. On their album, however, the group rocks much harder, so I think the acoustic sound is rather a separate beast.

    Either way, though, I’ve been enjoying what I’ve heard. At the show I saw, the duo (which includes Joyce Raskin on bass and pretty much equally-divided vocals) were clearly having fun, and the whole set had a nice, relaxed feeling. The chord progressions have a nice amount of surprises thrown in that keep the songs feeling fresh, and the duo’s vocals work nicely together. After they finished they took a break and then came back with a short set of older songs. Highlights among the newer songs were “The Hurricane” and “Between My Teeth” (neither of which have been recorded yet, alas), and “Ocean Blue”, a song that Raskin supplied yearning, almost chanteuse-y vocals to. Of the older songs one that particularly stood out was “Sense Of Quickness” from their first album. If you’re looking for a CD they’ve got some for sale on their MySpace page and some mp3s on Amazon.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the group again, acoustic or not, although it seems they’re going to be taking some time off to record their new album. Also have really been getting to like the shows at The P&S, which are small but nice and laid-back and clearly for fans of good music instead of fans of whatever trendy band happens to be in town. Will be trying to get myself over there more in the coming months.

    Upcoming for December

    In general I’m pretty picky about going out to see theater in Boston, but I’m intrigued by the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s The Seafarer at the Boston Center for the Arts. Their description is:

      A 2008 Tony Nominee for Best Play, “The Seafarer” is a funny and
      haunting alternative to traditional holiday fare. On Christmas Eve in
      North Dublin, Sharky Harkin finds himself reluctantly hosting old
      friends at the rundown house he shares with his older brother. A lot of
      booze and card-playing carry the men into Christmas Day when Sharky must face the grim promise he made to one of his guests decades ago.

    Half-price tickets are available at GoldStar.com.

    Will also be checking out the MIT Museum’s new holography exhibit:

      Throughout the winter beginning at dusk, the MIT Museum presents an exhibition of contemporary, three-dimensional holographic artworks displayed in the windows, viewable only from outside the Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery. Featured will be holograms by six international artists whose varied imagery represents artistic and technical advancements in the field of display holography.

    Will try to make it to the opening this Friday, although my sources tell me it’s probably going to be more kid-friendly than not:

      December 5, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.
      Lighting Ceremony and Opening Celebration
      Free admission, refreshments and street festivities

    A few shows coming up I may hit as well. Love is All + Crystal Stilts at Great Scott in Allston next Monday, December 8. The latter is described by one as “the love child of The Jesus and Mary Chain + Joy Division”, haha. Their MySpace page is here.

    +/- is playing The Middle East Upstairs the following night, but I’m probably going to have to pass, being too wussy to go to a show two nights in a row. Yes, I’m getting old. 😛 [Update: It looks like the show has been moved to Saturday, December 13. But I’m going to be out of town! Darn.]

    So looks like that’s the next couple of weeks figured out. Phew! 😉

    Cotton Candy at the Plough & Stars and Ludovico’s “From Britain”

    [The preview for this review is here.]

    Had a good time at The In Out and Cotton Candy show at the Plough and Stars last Friday. I was correct in my surmise that M wanted to go because CC is on TeenBeat Records. And actually CC is apparently comprised of the TeenBeat man himself, Mark Robinson, along with TeenBeat mainstay Evelyn Hurley. Dug up this interview with Robinson from 2002ish which is right around the time he relocated to the Boston area.

    There’s a discouraging paucity of info online about the duo Cotton Candy itself, though, which makes me suspect they either haven’t been around that long or are more of a throw-together sort of team-up (or both). They’re not even listed as a group on ye olde TeenBeat Records website, but live they gave a very good impression. Their all-too-short setlist alternated between laid-back but catchy songs with the duo sharing guitar duties, and TV and radio jingles rendered a capella (plus a completely random recreation of David Bowie’s guest appearance on season 2 of the British Extras). There was a pervading sense of fun and whimsy that penetrated my usual Bostonian veneer of jadedness and came off as utterly charming and winning.

    So much so that I sprung the 5 bucks for the 3-track EP and was likewise not disappointed. On disc the unique charm of the duo doesn’t come across quite so clearly, and the connection to Robinson’s other work (e.g. Flin Flon and his solo recordings), with their shared spare guitar, sparse texture, and easy vocal delivery, becomes more evident. But the songs (“Invisible Kisses”, “A Sentimental Song” (which is on TeenBeat’s MySpace page), and the clear forefront in my affections, “Fantastic and Spectacular”) for the most part successfully navigate the fine line between too twee and perfectly easy quirkiness. The latter song was memorable from their live set, as was the song they closed with but apparently haven’t yet recorded entitled something like “Free Love on the Freeway”. Here’s hoping that they record a new EP soon, particularly in time for their New Year’s performance The Middle East Upstairs. M and I will definitely be in attendance. The info on the website is:

      Thu 1/1/09
      4th Annual Indie Pop New Year’s Day Night with One Happy Island, Cotton Candy (Mark Robinson & Evelyn Hurley), The Smittens, Cathy Cathodic – 18+ $9 NOTE doors at 8:30pm

    The In Out, who was headlining, was also enjoyable. Live they came across much better than the recorded tracks I’d heard, with a more varied sound. Nothing too unusual, but a solid performance and an enjoyable set. Had never been to the P&S for a show, but it was nice and intimate, and although there wasn’t much of an audience those who were there seemed to be having a good time.

    Last Sunday was the Ludovico Ensemble‘s “From Great Britain”. To recap the program:

      Cantata X by Jonathan Harvey
      Nenia: The Death of Orpheus by Harrison Birtwistle
      Dark Mother by Andy Vores
      (Featuring Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Julianne Lee)

    First off, I have to say the programming was well thought out and came off well. The first and third works were based on myths, and the second work had a fantastical, mystical element that complemented them well. Also, the first two works featured soprano and three clarinets, which added to the unity of the program. Those two works, both from the 70’s, felt a bit dated, but the performance still felt worthwhile, helped in large part by the soprano, Aliana de la Guardia. De la Guardia’s focus, control, expressiveness, not to mention beautiful singing, continues to impress, and her commitment to the music drew the audience completely in (particularly in some of the Birtwistle which at times would just sound laughably quaint otherwise). The clarinets did not often contribute a particularly clear texture to those two works, but the scoring isn’t particularly helpful in that regard.

    The Vores work, Dark Mother, from 1999, was a heavily programmatic piano trio recounting the myth of Persephone from her mother, Demeter’s, perspective. The score feels fresh, and the performance was for the most convincing, although I question their choice to retune before the final movement which I found disruptive. (Mp3s of the performance by Triple Helix can be found here.)

    All in all, though, the concert was a good length, and this is a group that is clearly providing Boston with worthwhile new music experiences. Their next performances are Boston Conservatory Student Works in January, followed by Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments and Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry in February.