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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Xanthos Ensemble in concert

On Thursday evening April 30th the Xanthos Ensemble closed their 2008/2009 concert season at the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music. It featured works by Shirish Korde, Ketty Nez, and Alejandro Viñao.

Xanthos opened with "Cranes Dancing" for solo violin and string quartet by Korde. It's a East-meets-West work that explores the raw pitch material, progression of time, timbre, and ancient musical gestures that have long been associated with Asian art music. But Korde remolds the music with modern western instrumentation and his trademark contemporary language that at its core is infused with everything from South Indian music to American jazz. The piece was originally written for flute with string orchestra, but has been retooled and transcribed into several versions: including the one performed by Xanthos that features a solo violin and string quartet.

The solo violin playing is largely quiet, meditative, and focused inward but with occasional outbursts of exuberance. Performed with panache by the soloist Brenda van de Merwe (who just returned from performing new music in the Netherlands), she made her violin speak like the ancient Japanese flute or shakuhachi. Providing a backdrop to the soloist, the string quartet closely imitated the drone of a Gagaku orchestra of ancient Japanese Imperial court music. Van der Merwe found the right zone for the piece, and led us through the works’ meditative journey. She was supported by the sensitive and skillful playing of Julia Cash and Rose Drucker on violins, Ashleigh Gordon on viola, and Brandon Brooks on cello.

I was sitting next to Shirish Korde, the composer of “Cranes Dancing.” Shirish was my teacher at Berklee some 36 years ago, and we have kept in close contact over the years. In fact he wrote a recommendation on my behalf for the Fromm Foundation last year. It's amazing how much time has past, how many things have changed. But from my current perspective I can better perceive a sense of the large arc of life, and the trajectory of his interesting and persistent musical career. I remember some of Shirish’s first mature works, such as his Saxophone Quartet. After hearing the much newer "Cranes Dancing" it reminded me of all of that history, extra-musical associations, and more.

Also on the Xanthos program was "time curves" by Ketty Nez of the Boston University Music Department faculty since 2005. Although I never met the composer, or heard her work before, the piece made a strong impression. Nez is also an impressive pianist, and demonstrated her pianistic chops with Xanthos. It struck me how the instrumentation (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano) is the same as Messiaen's famous "Quartet for the End of Time" and I thought I heard similar harmonies or perhaps inadvertent quotes based on Messiaen's unique musical language.

There are also sections of driving rhythmic intensity that propel “time curves” and they verge on whimsical at times. I thought the music would be well suited as accompaniment for a silent film - perhaps the classic scene with gears and machinery from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 comedy "Modern Times."

While Nez's "timed curves" is not stylistically the kind of piece I would write myself (being of a different generation), I can really appreciate her musical ability, fine ear, and compositional skill. She had studied with composer Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam, and for better or worse the influence of Euro-minimalism seems to be systemically ingrained into her musical thinking.

The Xanthos concert ended with "Cuaderno del Ritmo" by Alejandro Viñao. Viñao who spent time in residence in Boston earlier this year. He was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1951 but has been a living in England since the mid-1970s – becoming a British citizen 1994. The piece was performed by Sarah Brady (flute), Chi-Ju Juliet Lai (clarinet), Brenda van der Merwe (violin), Ashleigh Gordon (viola), Brandon Brooks (cello), Akiko Kikuchi (double bass), Eunyoung Kim (piano), and George Nickson (persussion). Not only was the stage filled with some of Boston’s finest new music specialists, but the battery of percussion called for in the work. The collection of percussion instruments alone would have filled a large truck. The formative ensemble was guided and coordinated by conductor by Jeffrey Means, who never lost a beat in Viñao’s complex rhythmic landscape.

Viñao has a wonderful sense of instrumentation, and finds a good balance between individual and collective voices within the ensemble writing. Just about everyone gets to solo, but all-out pandemonium is reserved for the percussion player (nailed in this case by George Nickson), who goes wild on the marimba in the final movement.

The Xanthos Ensemble ended their 2008-09 season on a high note. Founded in 2005, they are still building their repertory and fine-tuning their programs. They have a very successful New York City debut under their belt (with praise from the NY Times), and have been contracted for a slew of prestigious university and conservatory residencies, workshops, and guest appearances. Boston is very fortunate to have these very talented and dedicated players as part of our musical community.

Xanthos Ensemble
Presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music
CFA Concert Hall
April 30th, 2009