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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Concert Review: ALEA III

In a concert titled “Harps, Strings, Colors, etc…” the new music ensemble ALEA III performed a half dozen works of contemporary music in the second concert of its 31st season.


Founded in 1978 by composer and music director Theodore Antoniou, ALEA III has performed about 1200 works by 700 different composers. That’s a lot of new music, and they added additional works to their already impressive legacy last evening with a very diverse assortment of pieces.

The program began with an Octet in three movements by the Greek violinist and composer Nikos Skalkottas (1904-1949). It is scored for string quartet plus woodwinds (flute, oboe, B flat clarinet, and bassoon). The Octet was written and first performed in Berlin when the composer was finishing his studies on a Greek scholarship with Arnold Schoenberg during the years 1927 to 1931. Schoenberg, who was the successor to Busoni at the Prussian Academy of Arts, had a number of important students during this period in addition to Skalkottas, including Roberto Gerhard and Josef Rufer.

Schoenberg was dismissed from his post in Berlin and forced into exile when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He escaped to Paris before emigrating to the United States where he briefly took a position at the Malkin Conservatory in Boston. Skalkottas fled Germany too, leaving for Greece. With all of terror related to the war, he stopped composing for about three years. In his hasty departure from Berlin he left the score for his Octet behind. The Octet was presumed lost, but his manuscript was serendipitously rediscovered in 1955 at the shop of a music dealer by Greek pianist George Hadjinikos.

During the last years of his life Skalkottas survived as a back-desk violinist in various Greek orchestras while composing in complete isolation on the side. In 1949, at the age of 45, he died unexpectedly from a ruptured hernia leaving several of his works unfinished.

The Octet is a very traditional work written in the dodecaphonic style championed by Schoenberg. You can clearly hear his teacher’s strong influence on the Octet, which seems to embrace Schoenberg’s 12-tone method and compositional style whole-heartedly. The form, gestures, phrasing, and surface rhythm closely resemble works of Schoenberg from this period, including the Suite Op. 29, and Third String Quartet Op. 30. Skalkottas would surely have been familiar with these pieces. In the splendid performance of the Octet last evening, the craft of composition is quite evident, even though the work was composed in the shadows of his famous teacher. Skalkottas would ultimately develop a voice of his own, and incorporate a more pronounced Greek accent into his stylistic expression. This new voice would emerge during his remaining years.

The second work on the program was Sonata No. 2 for Flute and Piano by Martin Amlin. It was performed by flutist Linda Toot with the composer at the piano. According to the program notes, the Sonata is based on a [0,1,5,8] tetrachord (aka the pitches of a major seventh chord) and this base sonority is reflected throughout the work in an array of ambient chords or in luminous melodic lines. The piece begins with a pedal point which nicely supports the unfolding of the harmonic material that the work is based on. The internal logic of the piece draws the listener in, and the composer knows how to manipulate the age-old sonata-allegro form to achieve a musical narrative that is both convincing and direct.

Guest artist, conductor, and composer Michalis Economou (b. 1973) was featured in the performance of this own 2nd String QuartetAllion” dating from 1998. Dr. Economou received his early musical training in violin, theory, and composition in Greece, but has extensive Boston connections and advanced degrees from Boston University. He is currently conductor of the Athens Symphony Orchestra and a professor at Athens Technical University. His work fully exploits the rich pallet of modern string techniques but takes it step beyond in this piece with the addition of wind chimes and an off-stage recorder. The work fluctuates back and forth freely between clusters of microtonal dissonance and areas of open consonance and repose. It is a skillful work that challenges both the musicians who play it - and audience who absorbs it - to listen carefully to the subtle details that live within the vast universe of a single note.

Recueil de pierre et de sable by Joshua Fineberg derives its title from a book by a 13th century Zen monk. The work was commissioned by Radio France and received its premiere in 1999. Recueil is scored for two harps (that appeared to be tuned a quarter-tone apart), two flutes, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. The two harps (played with much aplomb by Virginia Crumb and Judy Saiki) are positioned in the foreground - both visually and musically. Their percussive utterances shape and articulate the musical direction of the work. In his program notes, Fineberg equates the role of the combined microtonal “super-harp” with that of a rake applied to the sand and rock of traditional Japanese gardens. Recueil is a work that creates a unique world of sustained sonic events overlaid with percussive attacks that ultimately blend into a pleasing organic whole. The instrumental writing emphasizes harmonics, bent notes, changes in dynamics over time, and a careful utilization of register to achieve its sonic impact. One of the more discernible and elegant moments was near the beginning when a descending quasi-chromatic line could be heard emerging out of the pervading complex texture. Near the end, the work drops into a void of empty silence only to emerge again with a few final, but welcome whimpers of latent energy.

The solo violin work Romanza by Donald Martino (1931-2005) was performed by the young and upcoming virtuoso Yevgeny Kutik. The 23-year old Kutik, Russian-born, is pursuing his Master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. He has already aquired extensive experience as a soloist, in the performance of chamber music, and is emerging as an expert in modern music too.

Martino’s Romanza, completed in January 2000, was written for violinist Rolf Schulte. Schulte premiered the work at Harvard’s Paine Hall on November 16th that year - which was nearly eight years ago from today. The piece was recently released on Centaur Records with violinist Miranda Cuckson playing (look for an upcoming CD review on this blog). Romanza and other solo works for violin by Martino (Fantasy Variations and the Sonata for Solo Violin) appear destined to be incorporated into the modern solo violin repertory along side of landmark works by Béla Bartók, Roger Sessions, and Elliott Carter.

Paul Griffiths, reviewing Schulte’s NY performance of Martino’s work for the NY Times (12/27/2000) aptly called Romanza “a substantial exploration of a single state of passionate but controlled lyricism.” I agree with that observation, but hear the work as expressing more than a single idea. It is a hyper-expressive study in virtuosity, bustling with contrasting tempi, quickly shifting musical sentiments, and the refined perspective and scope of a grand romantic vision.

From the first notes of Romanza, a cantabile figure quickly divides the texture into distinct musical voices. Additional layers of dialogue emerge in expanding registers, and are clearly communicated through a carefully constructed maze of contrasting timbres, modes of attack (e.g. bowed verses pizz.), and violinistically-appropriate gestural characteristics. It is interesting that Martino, who was not a violinist, could write so effectively for the instrument by using a made-to-scale diagram of the violin fret board that he called “String-O-Graph.” He used it as an integrated but practical tool in his compositional process. By working out the details with regard to fingering, reach, harmonics, as well as the mechanics of a preponderance of double and triple stops, the composer was able to push the envelope of instrumental virtuosity to the edge while maintaining a close connection to his compositional process. It’s a remarkable late work that builds on top of an already impressive career of writing music for strings, including his wonderful Violin Concerto.

I found the performance by Kutik quite genuine, although more relaxed than the frenetic sounding premiere by Rolf Schulte in 2000. Kutik savored the long notes and shaped the intricate phrases like a seasoned pro. His intonation was exact and his penetrating sound projected reasonably well in the less-than-ideal acoustics of the Tsai Performance Center. However I wish that the alternating rapid fire pizzicato notes written in the final bars of Romanza could have be heard a little clearer.

Ending the program was Colors for 9 Instruments, a 13-minute piece by composer, conductor, and ALEA III founder Theodore Antoniou. Antoniou composed this work in 2007 for the Orchestra of Colors in Greece. It is scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet (also playing metal wind chimes), 2 violins, viola, cello, 2 double basses, and a hammered string instrument called the cymbalum. However, since the cymbalum and the musicians who can play it are fairly rare in America, its part in Colors was re-tooled to be performed on an altered upright piano retrofitted with thumb tacks inserted into the felt hammers. The instrument plays a very dominant role in the work, and is central to the unique timbrel affect.

Pianist Yukiko Shimazaki was skillful in her delivery of the peusdo-cymbalum music, often playing inside the honky-tonk like piano by directly deadening or plucking the strings. The finely-honed orchestration inherent in Colors is a well-known trademark of Antoniou, who’s vast experience accumulated through composing and conducting hundreds of contemporary pieces over the decades. This experience makes him a treasure trove of applied musical knowledge and wealth. Although the piece is rather tame - even by his own standards - it is intended as such. Colors draws upon previous incidental music that the composer wrote for an Aeschylus tragedy.

Theodore Antoniou, Music Director
Wednesday, November 12th, 2008
Tsai Performance Center, Boston