This 2015-2016 season, a new ensemble appeared on the block of East Mount Vernon Place—Peabody’s new contemporary chamber ensemble, Now Hear This. It is appropriate that the name of this flexibly-configured group approaches a command rather than a mere suggestion—the programming of just this first season, consisting of a fall and a spring concert, is gripping. The fall concert featured music of Donnacha Dennehy (with the composer in attendance), Gérard Grisey, and Julia Wolfe; the spring concert, which occurred on Friday, April 15, focused on music of Steve Reich.
The ensemble is directed by violinist Courtney Orlando of Alarm Will Sound and advised by Peabody Faculty member David Smooke, both highly imaginative and invigorating members of the new music community—and, importantly, inspiration mentors to their students. Smooke recently was awarded the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award for 2016, and, when Orlando and Smooke invited their student performers to speak prior to the concert, each spoke with passion, eloquence, and experience regarding their commitment to new music.
As the Nation’s Oldest Conservatory undergoes a variety of renewals—from new paint in the parking garage to streamlined administrative relations—it is beyond satisfying to witness these institution-sponsored performances of living composers. A number of other new music ensembles exist at Peabody (and even more outside of it), including the Camerata and the Peabody Modern Orchestra. The former tends to present bastions of the 20th Century—a recent outstanding concert featured Lisa Perry in a performance of Schoenberg’s Erwartung—and the latter, conducted by Dr. Harlan Paker, recently presented works of Nico Muhly, Libby Larsen, and many other living composers. The opportunity to present cutting-edge chamber works of the 21st century (or close to it) was ready to be seized—and thus we Now Hear This.
The April 15 concert opened with Music for Pieces of Wood, performed by members of the Peabody percussion studio. Notably, this occurred in the foyer of the Grand Arcade as a pre-concert performance. This proved immensely satisfying: for one, the Mondrian-like symmetries of the foyer paired well with the pulsing, interweaving lines of Reich’s music. Further, this inspired an informal, yet focused, vibe—the audience was here to hear Reich, and they stood, sat, leaned in, leaned back, and grooved along with the percussionists and their mallets. This last is important: the grooving was infectious. Watching the audience listen, one witnessed the varying scales of individual entrainment as audience members latched on to different beat patterns: large scale, small scale, behind or in front of or around the beat. Our individual/collective rhythmic impulses resonated Reich’s musical statement, as the audience ourselves demonstrated the malleability of time and silence, and the amalgamation of the piling on of pulse.
These piled pulses were on full display in the supple clarinet lines of the second pre-concert work, New York Counterpoint, for tape (with ten recorded clarinet and bass clarinet lines) and solo clarinet. The work was artfully and accurately performed by Mellisa Lander, who confidently navigated the treacherous clarino-register passages that ended the composition. In the front row, two groovers in the form of children laughed and smiled along to the pinball-like lines that bounced between registers: the stage was set, not just for a high level of musical performance, but for the child-like sense of wonder that new beauty should inspire.
The concert proper consisted solely of Music for 18 Musicians. One of Reich’s masterworks, this hour-long composition cycles through a series of chordal and rhythmic transformations that, though rigorously planned (in his pre-concert remarks, Smooke reminded the audience that Minimalism was, after all, a brand of Modernism and that this work was “as rigorous as any Modernist piece), seem ultimately natural. The concentration necessary for the performers to navigate this harmonic labyrinth is staggering. With so many layered units, the work also has a flexible, mobile-like existence, as audience members interpret it individually: “Everyone hears it a little differently,” percussionist Christina Manceor mentioned in the pre-concert remarks. However, under the watchful eye and gentle gestures of Orlando, the ensemble seemed to pulse as one organism, clockwork cells whirring and spinning at once independently and in tandem. Reich’s straightforward titles and compositional processes that straddle the simple and complex demonstrate an abstract removal from representation that allows for a blank but visceral palette—the performers grasped this, and lived it.
As Smooke mentioned, this concert was presented just nine days shy of the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians. The work was not published until 1999, but it has taken some time for it to filter into the repertoire of conservatory performance: students of the San Francisco Conservatory performed it in 2013, and both Juilliard and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble in 2010. This creative and invigorating programming is precisely right for Peabody as it looks to its future, granting students, performers, and audiences the opportunity to Hear This: Now.