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Music Review

Ah, the sounds of late June

A concert at NEC included work by Japanese composer Jo Kondo. A concert at NEC included work by Japanese composer Jo Kondo.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 20, 2008

Late June is a kind of liminal space for classical music in Boston, a drawn-out moment of transition between the bustling spring season and the relative quiet of summer. It's a time when Mozart and Beethoven and their ilk are busy packing their bags for the Berkshires, which also makes it a time when, like rebellious kids who have been waiting all year for their parents to go on vacation, contemporary composers and their advocates can throw a party.

At least that's the case at New England Conservatory, which is home this week to an annual new-music boot camp called the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, also known as SICPP, or more memorably, Sick Puppy. Under the artistic leadership of NEC faculty member and piano maverick Stephen Drury, the festival began more than 10 years ago as a keyboard event, but it has recently expanded to embrace all varieties of chamber music.

Tonight features an ambitious percussion-themed program with works by Steve Reich, Brian Ferneyhough, Christina Viola Oorebeek, and the Japanese composer Jo Kondo, in residence at this year's festival. Tomorrow holds in store a six-hour new-music marathon beginning at 4 p.m.

But on Wednesday night in Williams Hall, the festival returned momentarily to its keyboard roots, as Drury took the stage for a 90-minute program of tough-minded contemporary piano music. There was no filler repertoire, no intermission, and no discernible ventilation in the hall, yet Drury held this young audience in rapt silence from the opening work. That was Toshio Hosokawa's "Nacht Klänge," a spare piece full of sharp attacks that conjured wide open spaces filled with unusually blended, slowly draining resonance. Kondo's brief "Dance for Piano 'Europeans' " followed as a charming keyboard essay, meandering yet poised, suggesting a kind of harmonically piquant impressionism built of quietly elegant gestures and dissonant pastels.

The night's final two works were the most daunting. Helmut Lachenmann's "Serynade", like so much of this composer's music, appears to deconstruct and reconstruct an instrument right before your ears. Specifically, Lachenmann treats the piano as a laboratory for mischievous experiments in resonance. Giant chords are struck, sometimes with the forearms, and the vast billow of sound is manipulated often with the help of other keys that have been silently depressed. The effects in Wednesday's performance were fascinating, as the piano seemed to be dreaming of other instruments: an organ-like sonority came and went, and at one point the clouds of resonance suggested a distant ghostly choir of double basses. Lachenmann even has the pianist briefly play the pedals alone, producing a deep rhythmic thumping like a heartbeat.

Drury gave this demanding work a masterful, sharply drawn performance, and was no less committed to the closing selection, John Zorn's sprawling and somewhat overlong "Fay Ce Que Vouldras." It's a highly caffeinated polystylistic romp that had Drury pounding out massive tone clusters, charging virtuosically to both extremes of the keyboard, and reaching into the piano to produce an extra gallery of sounds by strumming the strings directly and then by plying them with what looked like a Pyrex measuring cup. For better and for worse, the centrifugal force in this piece makes the music feel constantly on the verge of breaking apart. Judging by other Zorn works, that's how the composer likes it.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

Stephen Drury, piano

At: New England Conservatory, Wednesday night

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