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What’s Happening at the Next?

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jun 3rd, 2017

Peter Askim and Jennifer Koh

On the evening of June 3rd at Music Mountain’s Gordon Hall, Peter Askim’s The Next Festival of Emerging Artists held a benefit for the David M. Hunt Library. The program consisted of accomplished students from all over this country performing works by contemporary composers.  Askim’s program began with Ted Hearne’s “Excerpts from the Middle of Something.” Influenced by John Cage, the “Something” appeared to be the fifteen to thirty second silences between movements. The silences offered provocative tension. Silence is the environment we live in, unless we immerse ourselves in the mindless noise of television or loud machinery. Silences served to highlight the rounded-out music featuring some excellent violin lines, which appeared to be excerpts from an uncompleted symphony laden with mystery that was not to be resolved. The music was enjoyable, yet the silences were transformed into burdensome noise.

Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte” was emotionally more accessible while engaging more of the nineteen-member ensemble. The ensemble appeared to be raising questions and as a group searching for musical solutions. While various group solutions were suggested, nothing sounded satisfactory. The ensemble resorted to exploring pizzicato. After much pecking of violins, violas, and cellos, and bass, it appeared that a single cello arrived at a rather non-classical solution, which was to reduce the classical instrument to sound like a solo guitar. Obviously, here less is more, and the solution lay under everyone’s nose the whole time, but only the cello knew how to find it by turning into a pop guitar so the sophisticated musicians might finally “get it.” This cuteness had a dramatic arc and the solution was quite unexpected. Perhaps the whole inspiration-concept of the piece flowered in the solo conclusion that revealed the original melody the composer worked with.

Five “Short Stories” by Brett Dean followed. This short format is the current cousin of the “short-short” story form that has replaced traditional short stories in many small literary magazines. I liked the first of these five short pieces the best: “Devotional” communicated wave-like orchestral swellings that I found mysterious and meditatively satisfactory.

Peter Askim introduced the premiere of his “Being, Becoming…” with the observation that perhaps composers should not rigidly define what they are up to, modestly concluding “I don’t know; you tell me.” The music appeared to be a meditation on the process of transforming concepts into actions. I found the rich, gentle texture captivating and satisfying. This was musing music that expressed the joy of being as it lovingly translated into reality. The music conveyed a frank openness to life that I found refreshing. Moreover, I wanted to hear it again.

Anna Clyne’s “Rest these hands” was performed by guest artist Jennifer Koh on violin with ensemble support. This was a poetic, extended elegy. After a long lament where Koh’s remarkably pure tone rose to melancholic heights that hit one viscerally, the piece appeared to end in silence. But no, a life-affirming note in the face of death was struck and the melody was revived, at first tentatively, then ascending in ever higher scales to proclaim life’s force as a combination of the tragic and the vital. This was a kind of resurrection motif where Koh—soulfully on solo violin—nearly levitated before the audience. At the point of a renewed affirmation of life, the ensemble joined in as if they were all old friends welcoming the mourner back to the routine joys of life and its discourse. This was a performance and composition that was healing and cathartic, a major modern masterpiece performed by a great contemporary artist.  

This was a well-conceived program. The student ensemble did not miss a note or beat while they performed with fierce unity.

And what comes Next?