September 22, 2008

On Sunday, the Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music’s last pair of concerts at the ICA began with two people and finished with over sixty, in a glass box on the harbor. The former were Matt Haimovitz, on cello, and Geoff Burleson, on (and in) piano. Children standing on the postmodern boardwalk outside pressed their faces against the window as Burleson hit keys with one hand and reached in with the other to pluck at the piano’s viscera, as Augusta Read Thomas’s Cantos for Slava (2008) required. When Haimovitz wasn’t wringing long, doleful cries from his instrument, he too plucked, as if the cello were a tall, fat lute.

David Sanford’s 22 Part I for cello and piano (1995) followed, shuddering, urgent, and angsty, and then Tod Machover’s VinylCello (2007). Machover, who had a hand in the genesis of the Ditson Festival (and once wrote an opera based on Philip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical sci-fi gospel Valis), has in recent years collaborated with the MIT Media Lab to breed mutant electronic offspring of traditional instruments. For the purposes of this piece, DJ Olive was set up with two turntables, the ubiquitous MacBook, and other devices, with which he seemed to manipulate the sounds of Haimovitz’s amplified and processed cello, sometimes scratching, sometimes creating faraway, ethereal washes or alien birdsong. Haimovitz’s cello sang back, until its duet with its distorted reflection shattered with an appropriately startling bang.

Sunday was one of those bright, crisp autumn days that justifies the existence of New England, and Bostonist almost felt that we weren’t missing it, as clouds and ships drifted behind the headlining Boston Modern Orchestra Project. We’re used to seeing them framed by the thick stone walls of Jordan Hall; here the orchestra was cheek to jowl at the bottom of the auditorium, playing a necessary game of musical chairs between works. At none of the Ditson shows that Bostonist attended (all but Saturday’s) were all the very orange seats in the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater filled; this seemed to exacerbate the informality that might be inherent in the venue, with its view of museum-going dawdlers and lack of a distinct stage. Musicians popped into auditorium seats when they weren’t needed, and living composers stood and waved amongst the applauding concert-goers. Rather than proceeding solemnly and cryptically from one piece of music to another as performing rituals at a pre-Vatican II altar, performers and composers lectured and joked and stalled for time.

Andy Vores jaunted to the bottom of the auditorium to explain his “fabrications” (numbered 11 and 13, world-premiering together), which played games patterned on sculpture and experimental drama. Number 11 described a walk through Richard Serra’s Torqued Torus maze at MoMA last year, first breathing down the necks of brass and woodwind in anticipation, with a few stray squawks, then lurching forward into atmospheres of low metallic echoes, bright glances upward, and shivering strings, before exhaling again. (Vores’ Leif, concerning the Viking discoverer of North America, will be one of several mini-operas inspired by Boston statues performed at an upcoming Boston Musica Viva show.)

Haimovitz and his cello returned, unplugged, to lend some mournful notes to Paul Moravec’s 2000 concerto Montserrat. One of the grandest and warmest pieces that Bostonist had the pleasure of hearing in the festival, this one stuck with us, as did Levering’s harrowing Al Mare Dentro (2008). A whole minute seemed to pass before the last notes faded and everyone remembered to breathe again.