IU ensemble puts on outstanding show for contemporary fans

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer

Often, I’m of two minds when I have heard and watched the Indiana University New Music Ensemble at work.

Its director and conductor, David Dzubay, is a marvel of a musician, being also a composer of undeniable and well-deserved respect. For the ensemble, he knows how to select students with honest-to-goodness skill. He knows how to convince them of the repertoire so that they seem more than enthusiastic about the choices. He knows how to train them down to detailed refinements, so to give their readings in concert an understanding of what they are playing and, consequently, a dependably high quality that should bring envy to other ensembles engaged with contemporary music. Each time I leave a New Music Ensemble concert, I’m in awe of how the compositions were realized.

So it was Thursday evening in Auer Hall when Maestro Dzubay and his players went to work once again. But at the same time, to put it bluntly, I don’t always like the music chosen. That’s my problem, of course, not theirs, whose assumed task is to offer generous samplings of the avant-garde. Certainly, ensemble director Dzubay, as a member of the Jacobs School of Music’s composition department, must feel an obligation to offer programs that display the world of 20th- and 21st-century music, which — as a composer — he himself is a prominent part of. And the students who play for him obviously have chosen these ensemble duties to be a significant portion of their music education. Also, it is likely that folks in a New Music Ensemble audience seek such repertoire when they come to Auer Hall for its latest program. I’m the outsider, the outlier. So I admit.

Throughout Thursday’s program, I thrilled over the performance accomplishments, but I wasn’t crazy about some of what I heard. I liked best two pieces played by the excellent Vera Quartet, the current Graduate Quartet in Residence at the Jacobs School. The Vera played brilliantly Dzubay’s own contribution to the program, a revised version of his expressive and somber essay “Wintu Dream Song,” a movement from his String Quartet No. 1 inspired by a Native American funeral song. That was followed by an intensely played reading of John Adams’ “Fellow Traveler,” a propulsive and upbeat item written to mark the birthday of friend and renowned director Peter Sellars.

Intriguing was “Antechrist” by the British Peter Maxwell Davies, a score that added Early Music features and themes to tonal substance of a contemporary nature. Very well played it was by an ensemble of seven musicians.

Down the scale of personal like-abilities were the other selections.

A 32-year-young and already broadly respected guest composer, Nina Young, came to campus to join the preparation for her composition “Traced Upon Cinders” to be presented. It is a cleverly orchestrated work that I might come to appreciate more on second hearing. On first impression, what she made 14 musicians handle, with complex timing and dynamics, proved more interesting to see than hear.

Performance, again, was outstanding for a song cycle, “To Whom I Said Farewell,” by American composer Steven Stucky. For this, an instrumental ensemble of 17 accompanied mezzo-soprano Liz Culpepper in a musical setting for four songs about death and longing by A.R. Ammans. Culpepper was splendid dealing with the required high tessitura. The supporting instrumentalists excelled under Dzubay’s direction. I was not enthralled, however, by the score.

Nor for “Derive I” by the late Pierre Boulez, whose prowess as conductor for me usually surpassed that of his compositions, despite the high regard he was and continues to be held in worldwide.

In sum, I rate the concert performances A, for “Awesome.” My response to the music, I’ll still work on. Forgive me for my transgression.

© Herald Times Online 2016

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