My 2015-16 concert season began early this year, with season-opening concerts by the Five Boroughs Music Festival on September 11 and the Brooklyn Art Song Society on September 18.
5BMF decided to start their season in Manhattan, at the National Opera Center’s recital hall, with a program by the American Contemporary Ensemble, a youthful group of composers who perform their own music in ensemble. Group members Caleb Burhans, Timo Andres, Caroline Shaw, Clarice Jensen and Ben Russell collaborated in performances of their own compositions and also performed ensemble pieces by Meredith Monk and Charles Ives.
What struck me most forcibly in listening to these excellent performances was how the “new music” scene has changed and evolved so much since I was a youngster decades ago first encountering “contemporary music.” In those days of the 1960s and 1970s, “contemporary” music meant, for the most part, atonality or serialism, dissonance, the lack of appealing melody, and a generally “grey” coloration, largely abandoning instrumental music’s roots in vocal music and “naturally occurring” scales and melodies. There has been a revolution, and for the past few decades most contemporary music has reclaimed those roots with melodic lines one can follow, consonant harmonies spiced up with occasional surprising modulations or occasional dissonance. Unlike the famous headline from a feature about a contemporary composer in a music magazine of the 1960s (“Who Cares If You Listen?”, facetiously attributed to Milton Babbitt), today’s young composers do care. All of the pieces were well-made in this listener-friendly modern manner, seeking to communicate and appeal to the heart, not just the head, of the listener. The main complaint I might have about some of the pieces was that these composers have imbibed at the well of “minimalism” to the degree that some of the pieces struck me as less eventful than they might ideally be and strained patience at times with their repetitions of small rhythmic cells.
Ironically, perhaps, the piece that was most challenging in terms of harmony, rhythm, and following the musical argument was the masterful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano by Charles Ives, written a century ago. This was the centerpiece of the program, performed immediately before the intermission. If I were a young composer presenting new music, I would hesitate putting my latest pieces on the same program with the Ives piece, the work of a mature master in a more advanced idiom.
Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable concert, with many memorable moments and at least one piece, Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” in memory of his father for string quartet, that was extremely moving to hear.
Brooklyn Art Song Society began its season at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Fort Greene neighborhood. This is the first of several programs planned for this season surveying British song, so they went back to the beginnings, John Dowland and Henry Purcell. The program was a provocative blend of “authenticity” and “inauthenticity.” The first half, devoted to Dowland’s songs for voice and lute, were performed with the collaboration of Charles Weaver, one of the city’s leading lutenists, which vocal performances by soprano Sarah Brailey, mezzo Kate Maroney, tenor Nils Neubert, and baritone Jesse Blumberg. I think these songs would have been a bit better served had they been performed in a smaller, less resonant performing space than this church, since the voices tended to overbalance the lute at times. For the second half, Purcell songs were presented using Benjamin Britten’s realizations of piano accompaniments. Britten did a great job, but using a piano to accompany Purcell is throwing authenticity out the window. Nonetheless, these performances were better suited to the acoustic space. The four vocalists from the first half were accompanied by pianists Yuri Kim, Dimitri Dover, and BASS artistic director Michael Brofman. As in the first half, the performances were all very accomplished, and the overall program was a big success to usher in the BASS season.
Coming up next? 5BMF heads to the “boroughs” for performances in Brooklyn and the Bronx on November 12 and 13 by Montreal-based musicians performing baroque music by Biber, Bach, Buxtehude and Schieferlein. BASS presents its next program on October 6 at Deutsches Haus (New York University), settings of German lyrics by Britten and English-source lyrics by Schubert, Schumann and R. Strauss, and a Ned Rorem birthday celebration at Bargemusic in Brooklyn on October 22. Lots of good stuff coming up.