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MUSIC REVIEW

Soloist showcase hinges on drama and dexterity

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - On Friday, the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard presented conductor Jeffrey Milarsky's crack new-music ensemble, the Manhattan Sinfonietta - once the Columbia Sinfonietta, the now-independent group remains Columbia University's contemporary ensemble-in-residence. The concert, the first of two collectively called "The New Soloist," showed that, while the vocabulary may change (here, a profusely detailed non-tonal modernism), the new soloist is a lot like the old - speed, dexterity, and dramatic flair are still the touchstones of individual musical glory.

A couple of works highlighted that soloistic quality in and of itself, as self-contained objects rather than musical journeys. Hitomi Kaneko's 1991 flute duet "Miyabi" received a commanding performance at the hands of Tara Helen O'Connor and David Fedele, but the exotic gestures - overblown white noise, jittery rhythms - were deployed early on, then examined from various angles. Arthur Kampela's 1995 viola solo "Bridges" similarly used scratches, glissandi, and violent pizzicato, but seemed to have a comic self-awareness, an almost parodic sense of its virtuosic intensity; Daniel Panner's rendition had both the technique and the zeal.

David Gompper's chamber concerto "L'Îcone St. Nicolas," premiered by the group earlier in the week, fills blocks of time - the lengths derived from the visual proportions of the titular Russian icon - with ornate, meticulous arrangements of three-note cells. Personifying the music's compositional poles, violinist Aaron Boyd's romantic soulfulness played off percussionist Tom Kolor's cool objectivity; but the episodic construction couldn't sustain the length.

Marcos Balter's 2005 "Raw Item" had both intricate clarity and a convincing trajectory - with a solo oboe (James Austin Smith, confident and controlled) spurring mutable sonic orreries from an instrumental quartet, the piece reached a kind of furious repose, a virtuosic equilibrium of colliding particles. Luciano Berio's 1974 "points on the curve to find. . ." had a similar frenzied equanimity: A solo pianist (the excellent Stephen Gosling) unleashes a steady torrent of fast passagework that the 22-player orchestra feeds on, echoing, imitating, augmenting. As throughout the evening, the performance was tight, focused, and technically impeccable.

The concert's aesthetic outlier was Galina Ustvolskaya's 1971 "Composition No. 1: Dona nobis pacem." A deliberately incompatible trio of piccolo (O'Connor), piano (Gosling), and tuba (Raymond Stewart) circles around the same harsh, simple gestures over and over again, stark and obsessive. The other works on the program built their own, well-appointed musical houses; Ustvolskaya paces a bare room, looking for an exit. The soloist here was the composer, manifestly alone.

MANHATTAN SINFONIETTA Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor and music director

Presented by the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University

At: Paine Hall, Harvard University, Friday

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