CONCERT REVIEW The Past and Future of Music:

Boston Musica Viva Performs Contemporary American Composers

Boston Musica Viva

Cappriccio sregolato, Composed by John Huggler

Credo in US, Composed by John Cage

Four Landscapes, Composed by Ezra Sims

Ludus II, Composed by Donald Harris

Rilke Songs, Composed by Peter Child

Conducted by Richard Pittman

Tsai Performance Center, Boston University

Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

Part of the joy of listening to contemporary music is to have the composer as reference and concordance for the works. For those trying to discover a suitable niche for Ezra Sims work on Friday evening’s Boston Musica Viva Concert, Mr. Sims delivered such a discussion on his piece Four Landscapes (2008). Speaking at Boston University’s Tsai Center for the Performing Arts, where the concert was held, he described Landscapes as a microtonal piece utilizing twelve-tone principles. As crucial as this exegesis was, what was particularly informative were Mr. Sim’s thoughts on how these pieces fit within his entire opus. Comparing himself to Chopin, he observed that this work was his “so-called Preludes.”

It’s an apt description for the collection of brief works exploring the wild range of possibilities in a microtonal system. Sims’s work is fragile and exact; this precision is its beauty: tones hover in crevices smaller than half-steps. Certainly, they can be painful to listen to when two pitches are played a quarter-tone apart from each other (Sims explained he utilized twenty-four tones in his compositional row).

Literally augmenting the traditional tonal palette is disturbing at first to a listener with even temperament. But in an era where dissonance in this regime has been exacerbated, Sims’s technique not only explored the more academic elements of structural space but presented the listener with a new understanding of the glorious and lugubrious possibilities of musical intervals.

BMV’s performance of Mr. Sim’s microtonal vignettes in the first portion of the concert framed the work appropriately among John Cage and John Huggler. Huggler’s Capriccio sregolato (1985), a twelve-tone piece centered around a three note theme, began the first half of the concert. Huggler’s work, for when it was written, radically explores both tonality and rhythmic space. Although at times a bit too exacting to the page, the ensemble’s Capriccio defined what would be the major themes of the first half of the concert: Huggler’s tonal exploration prefaced Mr. Sim’s work, his rhythmic exploration, John Cage’s.

That is to say, of course: the third work in the opening portion, John Cage’s Credo in US (1942), a study in the objet trouvé as instrument, seemed to disregard tonality altogether, favoring rhythmic innovation. A student of Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell, Cage’s works can often appear cerebral and unapproachable. Cage’s work fared well with the BMV ensemble. The piece found the performers in a gleeful riff on tin cans, prepared pianos and found radio clips, surprisingly prescient of more modern shows such as STOMP.

The second half of Friday night’s concert was a stark contrast to the first — while the Huggler/Sims/Cage combination juxtaposed stark explorations of tonality and rhythm Donald Harris’s Ludus II (1973) and Peter Child’s Rilke Songs (2008) was much more focused on melody and musical form.

By his own acquiescence, Harris’s work is difficult. Even played with a full sense of commitment from the BMV ensemble, Ludus II is introverted in its narrative — melodic lines are often fragmented and disparate. The piece transform, however, on the rare occasions when the independent lines coalesce in a discernible theme, providing moments of culminating thesis to the otherwise confusing work.

Peter Child’s Rilke Songs couldn’t be more different. Vocal music, by its very nature, demands a more intimate relationship with the audience: the nuances of the text demand to be transmitted to the audience not only in the very act of singing the words, but also reflected in the composition itself. It was interesting to hear Mr. Child discuss this very difficult task of coming to terms with Rainer Maria von Rilke’s often daedalian impressionistic poetry, and a relief to hear Child’s own admission that his interpretation was not reflective of an authoritative understanding of the poems, but merely a relationship he had developed with the words.

Child’s work was, in his own words, very much in service of Rilke’s poetry. It was impossible not to hear the culmination of the English melodic tradition of Vaughan Williams and Finzi, with Child’s lush impressionistic accompaniment as a backdrop. Soprano Elizabeth Keusch presented these poems as such: although somewhat strained in the higher register, Keusch’s performance often narrated these poems in a clean, rich tone reflective of Child’s line and Rilke’s poetry.

It’s impossible not to marvel at both the intellectual and musical achievements of the evening. The evening provided a glimpse into how music has been developing over roughly the past thirty-five years. Reflecting on this performance, it’s a marvel that human ability and ingenuity could have developed or performed anything of this sort. Most descriptive of this sentiment was Mr. Harris’s preamble to his piece, reflecting on how difficult and impossible this music seemed a mere generation ago, but that “as with the passage of time, things that seemed difficult can come into the repertoire.” It’s much more thrilling, of course, to see where music will go.