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MUSIC REVIEW

Microtonal marks 20 years with several premieres

Boston Microtonal Society members (from left) James Bergin, Joseph Maneri, and Julia Werntz. Boston Microtonal Society members (from left) James Bergin, Joseph Maneri, and Julia Werntz.
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2009
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The equal-tempered 12-note scale is near-universal in Western music; but within that qualifying "near," the Boston Microtonal Society finds an expansive playground. Founded 20 years ago by composer and avant-garde jazz saxophonist Joseph Maneri, the BMS and its resident ensemble, NotaRiotous, threw a long, varied anniversary party on Sunday: 12 pieces, six premieres, countless divisions of the octave.

Frank Oteri's "Spurl" (a premiere, charismatically dispatched by alto saxophonist Brian Sacawa) gradually sneaks off-kilter notes into its torrential rising scales and arpeggios - tuned to higher overtones that equal temperament "corrects" - acclimatizing the ear to the rarefied atmosphere. Manfred Stahnke's "Viola Sonata in Just Intonation" explores pre-equal temperament tuning, Anne Black's lean, sharp viola recalling early music, but saturated in pungent intervals earlier composers would have lightly passed over.

Alto Christina Ascher's confident operatic flair sold Bojidar Spassov's "Vili-Samovili," a high-spirited stew of slippery melodies, Sprechstimme, grunts and clicks. Ascher and cellist Ted Mook were commanding in Ezra Sims's "If I Told Him"; starting by transcribing a Gertrude Stein recording into the 72-note scale Sims invented, the result has lengthy fun with the stilted quality of a too-exact translation - "exactly a resemblance," in Stein's words.

BMS artistic director Julia Werntz's "but also nowhere" fashions its own melodic speech-simulacrum, one perhaps too beholden to e.e. cummings's typographic quirks; soprano Jennifer Ashe and countertenor Martin Near sang with acute purity. Carolyn Park's "Study no. 2" (a premiere) gave soprano Lauren Rose-King a disconnected mobile, phrases isolated in their orbits. Far more convincing was Maneri's "Kohtlyn": Ashe singing a fabricated language, in exotic counterpoint with Will Lang's trombone, an alien aria dramatically intense on its own invented terms.

John Mallia's similarly unworldly "Dodo" (a premiere), its intervals derived from that extinct bird's physiology, spins a lush cello line (played beautifully by David Russell) over vintage analog synthesizer noise, channeling retro sci-fi's eerie nostalgia. In another superb performance (and another premiere), Lang soared through James Bergin's "Langmusik," the microtonal inflections here producing Doppler-like illusions of shifting distance.

Alain Bancquart's "Duettino" (a premiere), a tortoise-and-hare dialogue - Elizabeth England's serene English horn overtaking Russell's voluble cello - glinted with bright modernist clarity. Maneri's son Mat, upholding the family's avant-garde excellence, offered an engrossing, ruminative viola improvisation of contrasting reticence, the compressed intervals like hesitant emotions.

And one last premiere: "Some Reflections" by John Eaton, a composer too rarely heard in Boston. Flutist Jessi Rosinski joined Ashe, Near, and Lang in settings of excerpts from T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets," a multifarious landscape of crushed harmonies and sweet, redolent overtones, Eaton trying Sims's 72-note scale for the first time. It was an unusually affecting anniversary present, the text haunted by time's passage, but the music inexorably, insistently pushing forward.

BOSTON MICROTONAL SOCIETY 20th Anniversary Concert Celebration

featuring NotaRiotous,

James Bergin, director

At: St. Paul's Cathedral, Sunday