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Friday, October 10, 2008

Concert Review: Xanthos Ensemble

Boston has been the home of several fine and long-established music ensembles that specialize in the performance of new music. These groups, well-known to new music aficionados, include the likes of the Boston Musica Viva, Collage, Alea III, and Dinosaur Annex. Although these core music organizations have maintained a valued and persistent presence over the past three decades, a number of young and vibrant new music ensembles are beginning to break into the fore: Firebird, Notariotous, and the Xanthos.

Last evening I got to hear the Xanthos Ensemble. They were founded in 2005 and appear to be filling an important niche in Boston’s new music performance scene. They collaborate with conservatories, colleges, and universities to provide concerts, seminars, and workshops for composers and students. Xanthos presented programs associated with composers from Boston Conservatory, Berklee, Composers in Red Sneakers (in NYC), and last evening they inaugurated a new season of concerts in conjunction with the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music Department of Composition and Theory. When you think that Boston University already has a long-standing resident new music ensemble called Alea III, it is commendable that BU is going the extra-mile in times of fiscal constraint to support contemporary music. The size of the audience last evening was decent by new music standards, so it appears that there is ample room for all of Boston’s new music groups to coexist without flooding the market with too much of a good thing.

For the most part the Xanthos concert last evening featured composers from the established mainstream: Franco Donatoni, Gunther Schuller, Luciano Berio, and Donald Martino - although the younger generation was represented by a new work written for the ensemble by Lansing McLoskey.

Arpège by Franco Donatoni began the program. After an introductory section of beautifully scored chords chiming from the piano and vibraphone, Arpège breaks into an energetic dance of fury and fire. Although the 15 minute work seemed to go on a little too long for my taste, Donatoni (who died in 2000) had a wonderful musical ear and possessed a steadfast command over his craft. Listening to the work, I reminisced about meeting him in 1984 in Amsterdam, and am glad that his music is gradually gaining more exposure in the United States.

Phantasmata is a duo for violin and marimba by Boston-based composer Gunther Schuller. It is in four movements, highly virtuosic, and almost 1960’s cool jazz in character. It was played beautifully by Brenda van der Merwe (violin) and George Nickson (marimba), who vividly interacted with each other and brought out the improvisatory nature of the piece. I could easily follow the lines and gestures of the work, particularly the exploration of register, but somehow its overall formal design eluded me.

Yellow written by the Lansing McLoskey (b. 1964), provided a little fresh air to a program that mostly represented works of the old guard. Dr. McLoskey received his Ph.D. from Harvard and is now a professor at the University of Miami, Florida. Yellow - written for the Xanthos Ensemble - seems to exploit the players’ youthful energy and rhythmic drive, especially guest artist Jessica Lizak on assorted flutes. But the music comes across like a community drum-circle event, where everyone gets to participate in an act of free self-expression – at least until the percussionist puts an end to the rampage with a loud and somewhat unexpected crash involving a hammer. Bang on a Can or the dance show Stomp would be proud.

Soprano Jennifer Ashe joined the ensemble in a warm but informed performance of the chamber version of O King (1968) by Luciano Berio – a heartfelt elegy that the composer wrote as in homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after his assignation. This short work demonstrates that modernism can be both emotionally expressive and abstract at the same time. Berio was a master of communication, both through his music and as a teacher. He died in 2003 in a hospital in Rome.

The final and substantial work for the evening was the classic piece Notturno by Donald Martino which won him the Pulitzer-prize in 1974. Notturno is a musical gem, a tour de force for the listener and a right of passage for any up-and-coming new music group wanting to prove themselves. It is also about as technically-tight as a piece of music can possibly be, and a prime example of this composer’s synthesis of intense rationality with lyric expressionism and raw emotional intent. Notturno’s wealth of ideas continue to challenge us 35 years after it was written. It is part of a grand legacy of music left behind by this important composer who passed away abruptly in 2005. I’ve heard Notturno many times, including the first performance in 1973 by the NY-based Speculum Musicae. That performance and Speculum’s subsequent Nonsuch recording became the benchmark by which subsequent generations of new music groups across the globe have measured themselves. Notturno could be veiwed as America's response to Pierre Boulez's influential work Le marteau sans maitre.

Performances of Martino’s Notturno have flourished in number over the decades and the work has clearly established itself in the concert repertory. But Notturno is still a very difficult work to bring off for any group of musicians. While a few ensembles such as Eighth Blackbird have performed it without conductor and a single percussionist, the Xanthos performance last evening took the more conservative route of dividing the percussion part between two players and using a conductor. Given the short amount of rehearsal time they could devote to this program, this made good sense. Yet one would hope that Notturno will remain in their permanent repertory and that they will reach for those heights in future performances.

Notturno is full of music that showcases individual musicians within the context of fluid and texturally-rich ensemble writing. Everyone shined last night: Jessi Rosinski on piccolo, flute and alto flute; Chi-Ju Juliet Lai on clarinet and bass clarinet; Brenda van der Merwe on violin and viola; the 19-year old Sebastian Bäverstam on cello; Eunyoung Kim on piano, and percussionists George Nickson and Daniel Zawodniak. Conductor Jeffrey Means directed with conviction, confidence, and a steady hand.

If the Xanthos Ensemble and other recently born new music ensembles bring a “disruptive innovation” to the Boston-area status quo, we welcome it. You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least when it comes to top-quality performances of contemporary concert music.

Xanthos Ensemble
Thursday, October 9th, 2008 at 7:30 p.m.
Boston University College of Fine Arts Concert Hall