Tired presentation, uneven program at League of Composers season finale

Fri Jun 12, 2015 at 12:51 pm
Kaija Saariaho's "Leinolaulut" was performed at the League of Composers concert Thursday night at the Miller Theatre. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Kaija Saariaho’s “Leinolaulut” was performed at the League of Composers concert Thursday night at the Miller Theatre. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

The League of Composers/International Society for Contemporary Music gave their season finale concert Thursday night at Miller Theatre, with their ensemble, the Orchestra of the League of Composers. One would like to attribute the sluggishness of so much of the evening to the summer heat and humidity, but the truth is that it was much more a product of design, rather than an accident of nature.

The League, of course, presents modern and contemporary music, and this concert had a primary focus on American composers, though the finest performance came with Kaija Saariaho’s Leinolaulut, which concluded the program. Before that, the audience heard music by Irving Fine, David Felder, and Morris Rosenzweig. And they endured an awful lot of dead time.

This has been a celebration season for Fine’s music—his centennial was last year—with concerts and a polished recording of his orchestral works by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. He wrote a good deal of solid music, and his Notturno for Strings and Harp, which opened the night, is probably his most popular concert piece.

Still, it is difficult to hear Fine’s orchestral music as anything more than exercises in how to write in the style of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism. Notturno is not a strict imitation of Apollo or Orpheus, but it eagerly embraces sonorities, rhythms, and phrases that are meant to emulate Stravinsky. It’s all well done, and was well played under conductor Scott Voyles, but it doesn’t make a case for Fine as a distinctive voice.

WNYC host John Schaefer spoke with Fine’s daughter Emily, the first of several rambling, uninformative conversations of the evening. Lines ran over each other, each side missed their cues, things went on too long. The awkward talks made the already snail-like stage changes seem interminable. In a concert that ran almost two hours and fifteen minutes, the downtime amounted to an hour.

Excerpts from David Felder’s Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux added to the torpor. Felder sets poetry from Robert Creeley, Neruda, and René Daumal for soprano and bass, and adds electronic sounds, including hissing, stuttering, and lots of ring modulation. While impossible to judge the full piece, the excerpts had a monotonous, sludgy aesthetic. Conductor Louis Karchin, the musicians, and bass Ethan Herschenfeld seemed committed to making it work, but they didn’t find the key. While soprano Heather Buck was excellent, the mix between acoustic and electronic sound was not. This feels like a better piece than it sounded Thursday, but the expressive opacity made it difficult to find a way in.

Things picked up after intermission, at least musically. First was A League of Notions, commissioned from composer Morris Rosenzweig and given its premiere.

Rosenzweig tosses out and gathers together brief phrases and fragments, and builds an intriguing horizontal flow of coherent music. Ideas repeat, but their context changes, so they accumulate both intrigue and meaning. It has the feeling of being through-composed yet also develops a solid sense of form. Voyles led a sharp performance of Rozenzweig’s tidy, artful work.

A filmed interview with Saariaho was enigmatic, but the music and playing were strong. Saariaho’s Leinolaulut sets poetry by her compatriot Eino Leino (the translated title is Four Leino Songs). It is one of her better works, pellucid, weighty, and full of dark primary hues. In the evening’s middling company it revealed what makes her such a special composer. Her craft and thinking are excellent, but her command of sound is purposed toward a sensual sense of mystery. Unlike Felder’s overstatement, Saariaho colors the words but underplays the emphasis, she hints rather than tells, and makes the listener think and want more.

The orchestra, under Karchin again, did their best playing of the night, the quality of the music seemiong to shake them out of a sense of duty and into one of keen pleasure. Buck sang beautifully, clearly appreciating how well Saariaho writes for the voice. The final song, “Iltarukous,” with the plangent opening phrase “Unta, unta, unta” (“Sleep, sleep, sleep”), was both dazzling and poignant.

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