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NYT: Yale Composers Showcase Their Works at New Music New Haven

May 26, 2016
Ani Kavafian, Lisa Morre, and David Shifrin | Photo by Chris Lee

Ani Kavafian, Lisa Moore, and David Shifrin | Photo by Chris Lee

The New York Times | By Vivien Schweitzer

It’s rarely a compliment to describe a composer as “academic”: the word is usually applied to those perceived as being sequestered on campus creating esoteric, dreary works. Conversely, being too “accessible” (i.e., not challenging enough) has also been deemed a negative. But there’s nothing pejoratively “academic” or “accessible” about any of the Yale faculty composers featured during a concert on Wednesday at WQXR’s Greene Space in SoHo.

David Lang, Hannah Lash, Christopher Theofanidis, Aaron Jay Kernis and Martin Bresnick represent an accessible aesthetic that draws on multiple stylistic influences. Some of their music has been championed by Bang on a Can, the lively genre-bending collective whose three founders, all Yale alumni, include Mr. Lang. The vocalist Helga Davis hosted Wednesday’s event, part of the NY Phil Biennial, and interviewed each composer and Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s music director, onstage.

Fittingly, the two-hour lineup (performed without intermission and streamed live) opened with songs by Charles Ives, who studied composition at Yale and became an insurance salesman after graduating in 1898.

The songs, expressively conveyed by the soprano Jessica Pray, represented Ives’s aesthetic range, including the impressionistic “Mists,” the jovial “Very Pleasant” and “West London,” a setting of a sonnet by the 19th-century British poet and critic Matthew Arnold in which Ives quotes an American hymn.

Mr. Theofanidis was influenced by a flock of birds in the New Haven town green, as well as the Japanese shakuhachi, when writing “Kaoru” for flute duo (1994). Andrew Robson and Felice Doynov deftly rendered the colorful dialogue and trills, runs and virtuosic flourishes of the three movements. There were echoes of Messiaen in Mr. Kernis’s mellow, enigmatic “Toward the Setting Sun (Vers le soleil couchant),” a work for solo piano that had its premiere with Robert Blocker (Yale’s dean of music) as soloist.

Ms. Lash, a harpist, joined the double bassist Samuel Suggs to perform her “Leaves, Space,” whose tart, staccato declarations, low rumbling bass trills and melodic fragments didn’t quite coalesce into a convincing whole. Mr. Lang took inspiration from the biblical Book of Ruth for his engaging a cappella choral work “where you go,” performed by the Yale Choral Artists, conducted by Jeffrey Douma. The opening lines were sung in unison before unfolding in harmonically piquant, buoyant counterpoint.

In “For your judicious and pious consideration,” Hilary Purrington (a Yale student) adapted excerpts from a 1692 petition by Mary Eastey, executed in the Salem witch trials. Scored for mezzo-soprano (Adele Grabowski), piano (Yevgeny Yontov) and viola (Julia Clancy), the text was delivered by Ms. Grabowski with expressive conviction and Ms. Clancy vividly rendered the agitated viola solos.

The violinist Ani Kavafian, the pianist Lisa Moore and the clarinetist David Shifrin gave a stirring performance of Mr. Bresnick’s visceral “And I Always Thought,” commissioned to commemorate Australia’s Anzac Day, similar to Memorial Day, and inspired by two Brecht poems. The somber opening violin and clarinet lines unfolded to haunting effect before eventually reaching a fervent climax.

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