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Xanthos Ensemble: Jeffrey Means (conductor), Roulette, New York. 24.5.2008 (BH)

Pierre Boulez
: Dérive (1984)
Derek Charke: What Do the Birds Think? (2002)
Daniel Knaggs: Three Nature Songs (2008, world premiere)
Donald Hagar: "I am not a Clock" from Missing Time (2005)
Mario Davidovsky: Flashbacks (1995)
Pozzi Escot: Aria IV (2004)
Charles Wuorinen: New York Notes (1981-82)

Anyone who thinks the audience for new music is either dying or dead should have been at this concert at Roulette, where the Xanthos Ensemble (in residence at Boston Conservatory) showed their expertise to a healthy crowd—and on a holiday weekend, at that, which is usually antithetic to programming "serious" music.  Kicking off a mix of modern masters and newer composers was Dérive, and surely Boulez-phobes would enjoy this short homage to Paul Sacher based on music from Répons, another Boulez creation chock full of luxurious color. The Xanthos crew almost made it seem easy.

Structure is important to Derek Charke, who takes a poem by Al Purdy and dissects it letter by letter, while analyzing it numerically.  Although his description of What Do the Birds Think? is almost impossibly complex, the results would be engaging no matter how they were created. Charke asks the players for high frequencies, percussion accents, a shrieking second section and a more agitated final one, before the piece ends with the cello in a long bout of static, as if a radio station had gone off the air.

In Three Nature Songs, Donald Knaggs finds gentle humor in poems by Paul Lawrence Dunbar ("Prelude to Sweeter Things") and William Stanley Braithwaite ("A Lyric of Autumn").  All were beautifully incised, sung with delicacy by Jennifer Ashe, but I found John Brainard's "The Tree Toad" especially luminous, with the title character in a bit of a comedic tango, with percussion creating metallic raindrops falling off leaves.  In contrast, Donald Hagar's energetic "I Am Not a Clock" (from Missing Time) alternates between a vigorous, jazzy moto perpetuo and more languid sections, before time (perhaps) catches up with everyone in a furious finale.  In all of these, Xanthos seemed to only gain in momentum as the evening progressed.

Mario Davidovsky's Flashbacks is perhaps a classic from the mid-1990s.  Its abrupt, seemingly chaotic tempi changes somehow evoke tiny scenes being interrupted by others—as the composer says, "A tune that we have not heard or sung for years will surface for no apparent reason."  It also looks like great fun to play, as the Xanthos musicians so skillfully demonstrated.  Pozzi Escot's Aria is a slow-moving piece for flute and soprano, with small bell-like sounds.  It sounds almost dedicatory, as if created for a religious ritual, and Ms. Ashe and flutist Jessi Rozinski captured its quiet drama.  For the finale, all hands were on deck for Charles Wuorinen's New York Notes, in three sections that seem to echo the pulse of the city.  The first shimmers like a subway train, the second is as laconic as an afternoon in Central Park, and the last bombards the listener in a kaleidoscope of colors.  The ease with which these musicians played this blockbuster was instructive, yet another example of how performers' skills have increased over the last few decades.  Music that once confounded is almost in the mainstream.

It's a pleasure to discover a new group, and the rest should be mentioned by name: Brenda van der Merwe (violin), Eunyoung Kim (piano) and George Nickson (percussion), with guest artists Chi-Ju Juliet Lai (clarinet), Leo Eguchi (cello) and Joe Becker (percussion).  Jeffrey Means is the group's intrepid conductor, his sure hand seemingly unfazed by anything on the program.

Bruce Hodges

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