Seeing that this month’s New Music New Haven featured the illustrious Jane Ira Bloom, I worried that the usual roster of graduate-student composers would have a lot to live up to. Last night’s concert, however, put this worry to rest. Students Paul Mortilla MUS ’20, Tanner Porter MUS ’19, Joel Thompson MUS ’20, Frances Pollock MUS ’19, and Gabrielle Lily Herbst MUS ’20 absolutely stunned me with the breadth and depth of their collective vision. Bloom’s trio didn’t stand a chance.
Mortilla opened the concert with his “Music for Horn,” featuring strings, bass clarinet, organ, percussion, and, of course, horn. The piece began amidst a lush upwelling of sound, the string section acting as one great sonic mass. Quickly devolving into an anxious triplet dash punctuated by chimes and bass drum, Mortilla’s horn concerto melded passages of surpassing clarity and subtle harmonic texture with a frenetic call-and-response between the ensemble and soloist Victoria Knudston. Arpeggiated triplets gave way to chromatic murmur of sustained notes while Knudston’s melody held the diatonic center, its wistful lyricism accentuated by the ensemble’s fleeting dissonance.
Porter followed with her song “What Good’s a Home,” from her upcoming musical “Harbor.” After a stunning showing from the strings, who played the opening theme with immense grace and tenderness, Porter and baritone Eli Greenhoe launched into a full-blown argument over alienation and belonging, one that could have easily taken place over a dinner table. They hurled broadsides and disdainful looks at one another, yet just as frequently sung in unison, animated by a common sense of lack. The true emotional center of the song, however, was in the strings. In contrast to the singers, whose voices crackled, even breaking sometimes, the strings never seemed to touch the ground. Through lonely violin solos and pounding, agitated unisons, they undergirded the song’s drama and conflict.
Herbst continued on the theme of things lost with her aira “Farewell, first lady of the air,” inspired by the life of Amelia Earhart. Donning aviator goggles and carrying a fishing pole, soprano Leah Brzyski pleaded and questioned, first as a lone voice but later joining a gauzily-clad trio of muses. All together, they chanted “STOP,” each invocation followed by a grand pause.
After Herbst came Thompson’s “We Were Kings Once,” the first of three “Songs from Prison”. Harpist and School of Music adjunct professor Hannah Lash opened on a straightforward melody, free from the virtuosities usually associated with the harp repertoire. Here, Thompson deserves great credit for treating the harp as an expressive instrument in its own right. Alongside Lash, tenor Haitham Haidar MUS ’19 set to song the poetry of Charles Brooks, an incarcerated writer from Michigan. In Haidar’s retelling, the poem became much more than an individual story of fortunes lost, taking on an almost mythological, world-historical import.
Next up was Pollock, with her piece “Pillow Talk” for flute, clarinet, strings and piano. Written the morning after her wedding, “Pillow Talk” opened with great heaving sighs of sound beneath which could be heard the gentle patter of marimba. At times, Pollock’s love letter to the pleasures of married life took on a bemused quality, as if taken aback by its own unabashed earnestness, yet at other times swelled with the quiet optimism of two newlyweds looking forward to a lifetime of lazy mornings in bed.
Finally, there was Bloom’s spectacular, if not a bit incongruous, jazz performance alongside Mark Helias on the bass and Bobby Previte on the drums. Helias began on a deceptively simple four-note scale tinged with funky dissonances. Bloom, swinging her saxophone in wild circles, rocketed through scales and improvisations. All the while, Previte explored a wide range of percussive timbres, opening my mind to sounds I had never imagined. In the end, however, what really stuck with me even after I left Sprague Memorial Hall was the soul and the spark of the up-and-coming composers whom I had heard that night.
Laurence Lu | firstname.lastname@example.org .