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MUSIC REVIEW

Iditarod follows a varied course

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / June 23, 2009
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There aren’t many summer carnivals more diverting than NEC’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP, “Sick Puppy’’ to its friends). After a week of concerts and immersion training in the avant-garde, Saturday brought this year’s Iditarod (as director Stephen Drury has drolly dubbed it), the annual all-night marathon recital.

How to generalize a 36-piece, eight-hour sweep? Much of the program seemed compositionally less concerned with advocating particular vocabularies (tonal/atonal) or concepts (minimalism/serialism) than with exploring the means of production, the various orthodox and unorthodox ways instruments can make noise. Results were often mobile-like, artfully arranged rather than intensely plotted. Flutist Ashley Addington and guitarist Mark Wilson deftly placed the stop-and-go Impressionism of Toru Takemitsu’s “Toward the Sea.’’ Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Refrain’’ uses the decay of vibraphone, celesta, and piano (John Andress, Christopher Lim, and Stephen Olsen) to chart loose, ringing constellations. Lukas Foss’s “Ni bruit ni vitesse’’ explores the far reaches of two pianos - Lim and Leah Kosch at the keyboards, percussionists Victoria Aschheim and Masako Kunimoto working inside the instruments’ cases - and the combination of clanging, buzzing, and slow-rolling scales was mysterious and magical.

Scattered throughout the Iditarod was an eight-piece retrospective of British composer Jonathan Harvey, SICPP’s composer-in-residence. Harvey ranges from old-fashioned pretty (his 1994 “Pastorale,’’ keenly spun by cellist Megan Koch and harpist Franziska Huhn) to far-out aleatoric (1974’s “Round the Star and Back,’’ given a terrific reading by a dozen students), but all his works immediately create a fully-realized sound-world, myriad layers and registers in transparent play, contemplatively orbiting, dramatically coalescing. (Within the program was a mini-festival of that master of luminous stillness, Morton Feldman, in the trio of “Two Pianos,’’ “Piano (Three Hands),’’ and “Two Pieces for Three Pianos,’’ the last especially lush at the hands of Kyle Blair, David Brooks, and Violeta Nigro Giunta.)

Works by SICPP’s 11 student composers showed an admirably high batting average. Some favorites were Adam Roberts’s jagged, insistent quartet “Pulse Satellite’’; the gentle, frenzied fluttering of Lee Weisert’s 8-player “Locusta Marina’’; Megan Beugger’s “eMOTION,’’ cellist Benjamin Schwartz casting quiet spells in the expressive space between music and noise; and Anthony Green’s charging, chunky “Etude II - Four Voice Fugue’’ (in a grand performance by pianist Elaine Rombola), rhetorically plundering swaths of music history while maintaining a parlance all its own.

Among the prevailing modernism, vernacular references were few and that’s including the skipped-record Americana of John Adams’s “Hallelujah Junction’’ (pianists Corbin Calloway and Kathryn Christensen in sturdy lockstep) but the selection was choice. Soprano Jenna Lyle - in highly entertaining, vernacular style - headlined a sweet rendition of Luciano Berio’s casually gorgeous “Folk Songs.’’ And Niels Ronsholdt’s “Die Wanderin’’ was bleak fun, with wheezing violin (Ethan Wood), heart-thumping percussion (Matthias Reumert), and film-noir piano (Daniel Walden) framing the ominous sound of prerecorded footsteps.

Among unfailingly excellent performances, a few stood out: Olsen’s precision exaltation in Harvey’s piano-and-tape homage “Tombeau de Messiaen’’; Walden and cellist Rachel Arnold going for polychromatic broke in Harvey’s “Dialogue and Song’’; soprano Pamela Stein’s rich dramatics in George Crumb’s “Night Music I’’; pianists Yukiko Takagi and Alex Bernstein and percussionists Bill Solomon and Kunimoto engineering a dense, pealing groove in Franco Donatoni’s “Cloches III.’’

What SICPP and the Iditarod do best is simply to make room for anything to go the way it should, with flair and enthusiasm. The finale, Stein and Lyle in full-on barker mode for Charles Ives’s sardonic fake campaign song “Vote for Names,’’ seemed to boisterously reject the notion of casting one’s lot with this or that new-music party, in favor of SICPP’s catholic embrace.

SICPP IDITAROD 2009 Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice; Stephen Drury, director

At: Brown Hall, New England Conservatory, Saturday

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