Society for New Music presents “The Now Generation”

Young classical composers bring their new and contemporary works to the Everson Museum of Art.

Sunday at the Everson Museum’s Hosmer Auditorium, the Society for New Music presented an afternoon of evocative contemporary art music from young up-and-coming composers of “The Now Generation.”

The program, attended by a sparse but attentive crowd of about fifty, was the first of the new year for the Society for New Music, an organization founded in 1971 to commission new works, advocate for new music and its creators, feature regional and guest composers, and provide opportunities for musicians in central New York. 

The afternoon began with two pieces by Princeton Ph.D. candidate Andy Akiho, an award-winning steel pannist, percussionist and composer. The pieces, “Daidai Iro (Orange)” (2004) and “Murasaki (Purple)” (2006) were excerpts from Akiho’s Synesthesia Suite, a set of 14 short pieces that represent the composer’s perception of color and sound.

 Akiho, a soft spoken, slight figure with a refined touch on the steel pan, stood up in between the performances to discuss the concept of synesthesia. Synesthesia is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “a concomitant sensation; especially : a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated.” The first piece, “Daidai Iro (Orange)” was a lively, bright romp that Akiho described as a “palate cleanser” to begin the program. He said it was, “for Syracuse - go Syracuse!” but lamented that it “should be a livelier piece if it is called that in these parts.”

The second piece, “Murasaki (Purple)” was a soft, glowing work with a slow build to a shimmering color. One might imagine walking through a city park on a grayish purple day, with dandelion seeds floating through the air, or (by virtue of the calypso element of the steel pan) an underwater exploration through a coral reef. Akiho’s steel pan playing is smooth and effortless, adding to the flowing quality of his compositions.

Both pieces were scored for steel pan, cello and marimba, though Akiho said he has worked with a variety of instrumentation for the suite. Though the trio’s communication broke down at a few rhythmically challenging moments, Akiho is a master of the melodic capabilities of percussion and the percussive capabilities of melodic instruments. Between these three (Jennifer Vaughn on cello, Mike Compitello on marimba and Akiho on steel pan), the effect was mesmerizing.

Next on the program was a piece by Syracuse native Robert Honstein, titled Patter (2010). Honstein is a graduate of Yale School of Music, winner of numerous awards, and co-founder of Fast Forward Austin, an annual contemporary music and arts festival in Texas. 

Patter is described by the composer as such:

“PATTER, 2010, is a quick succession of light soft tapping sounds: the patter of rain on the rooftops. To move with light, softly audible steps: the patter of little feet around the house. A conversation heard faintly, through the door or the floor: the patter of sisters, friends or neighbors speaking quietly.”

Indeed, Patter’s central theme was a conversation that moved seamlessly between the trio of marimba, violin and cello. Sometimes the voice worked together, sometimes in a pulsing counterpoint, but throughout, the musicians (Vaughn on cello, Compitello on marimba, Blagomira Lipari on violin) were tight and focused, moving from the ambient repetitive music of rain through to a buoyant colloquy.

The third movement of the afternoon was Juan Pablo Contreras’ four-movement programmatic piece Silencio en Juarez for violin, clarinet, cello and piano, performed by Blagomira Lipari, John Friedrichs, Jennifer Vaughn and Sar Shalom Strong. 

Contreras, who was unable to attend the performance due to a family illness, is a 26-year-old Mexican avant-garde composer. In 2013 he received both the William Schuman Award in the BMI Awards and the Society for New Music’s Israel Prize for the Silencio en Juarez. In 2014, he was awarded the a FONCA (NEA) Young Artist Fellowship by the Mexican government.

Contreras’ composition was by far the most unsettling of the program. Depicting the aftermath and context of a November 2010 murder of 15 teenagers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Silencio en Juarez juxtaposes moments of intense grief with explosive depictions of people and a city in peril.

The first movement, “Madre Dolorosa,” is written from the perspective of a mother of one of the teenagers. Bach’s “Holy Cross motif” (A, G, Bb, F#) is transposed and woven throughout a tapestry of sound. 

The uncomfortable second movement, “Corrido,” is an ironic setting of a popular Mexican folk genre similar to the Polka. The movement depicts the memories of a witness of the incident, alternating in a fine satire between a jolly folk dance and moments of anguish, evidenced by a intruding dissonance and a rhythmic gunfire motif. 

A true “Liturgia,” the third movement of Silencio en Juarez brings us to the funeral service, where we hear a procession of hollow yet deeply sorrowful eulogies from the clarinet, the violin and the cello. As the church bells toll on the piano to close the movement, the eulogies hang in the air, echoing Contreras’ program notes: 

“We are so used to hearing these stories that we often overlook the fact that people being murdered leave a devastated family behind, one that has to cope with their unjust death for the rest of their lives.”

The final movement represents the harsh chaos and injustice of the drug wars - aptly titled, “La Injusticia.” With its quick transitions and the return of the “Holy Cross motif,” Contreras concludes this work with a desperate bitterness. 

“[T]hese assassins justify their atrocities with religious devotion in hopes of receiving divine forgiveness. However, if murders continue, there will be nothing left but Silence in Juarez.”

Penultimate in Sunday’s program was another piece by Andy Akiho, LigNEouS: a technically exciting and intensely virtuosic piece that Akiho says was inspired by Greek-French avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis. Prior to hearing Xenakis’ string quartets, Akiho says he was unaware of just what kinds of percussive sounds were possible on non-percussion instruments. With the help of his string quartet (Vaughn on cello, Lipari and Ann McIntyre on violin and Cassandra Sulbarán on viola) he demonstrated the scratch tone - “like a door trying to open” - and the Bartók pizzicato, a severe pluck of the strings that was mimicked on the marimba (played again by Compitello) by strapping a rubber band around the low D bar.

LigNEouS was a complex and electrifying piece, full of rhythmic and harmonic textures rather than discernable melodies. Similar to Honstein’s Patter, the strings and the marimba passed lines back and forth, weaving and stretching a mesmerizing edifice of sound and rhythm. 

The musicians seemed to be having a great time with this piece; Jennifer Vaughn in particular was spirited and smiling as she moved her cello’s alto voice in and out of the conversation. Mike Compitello shined, showcasing the virtuosity of Akiho’s composition and swinging his whole body across the marimba as he played.

The 90 minute program concluded with a quarter-century-old piece by Stephen Ferre, who was in attendance to conduct his work. Ferre is an internationally renowned composer, arranger, music engraver, educator and brass performer on trombone and euphonium, and is a member of the faculty at Syracuse University.

Originally composed for chamber orchestra, Paradiso is the third part in Ferre’s 3 Pieces for Chamber Orchestra (1989) based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the request of Society for New Music founder Neva Pilgrim, Ferre rearranged it for clarinet, percussion, steel pan, piano and string quartet in 2013.

A man of few words, Ferre advised the audience to listen for the clarinet as guide, representing Dante’s Beatrice. “Everything else,” he concluded, “is in the notes.”

Indeed, there was a great deal in those notes. Ferre’s paradise, like Dante’s, is a complex realm, not the beaming land of light sometimes imagined in other constructions. Elements of that lightness appear occasionally in the song of the clarinet and the cello, as well as in the shimmering of the steel pan and the marimba. Like most piece of art based on Dante’s poem, Ferre’s work requires a second look to explore all of its intricacies.

Sunday’s concert left me with high hopes for the future of classical music. I am no Pollyanna on this issue - the financial problems and decline in audience appeal facing the classical world are real. The landscape has changed, and we must adapt. But if the Society for New Music’s selections are an accurate depiction of the future of contemporary classical music, then I advise all pragmatists to take a break from pessimism. “The Now Generation” may just remind you why it’s worth the trouble.

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