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Expanding the classical tradition: ‘Five College New Music Festival’ showcases pioneering sounds of the 20th century



Thursday, October 15, 2015
Just as literature has its classic heavyweights, from Shakespeare to Leo Tolstoy to James Joyce, so classical music has long had its top-ranked composers, drawn primarily from 1650 through the 1800s: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Handel and Tchaikovsky, to name just a few.

But what about Pierre Boulez, Leon Kirchner and Arnold Schoenberg — or Jennifer Ellis, Salvatore Macchia and Polina Nazaykinskaya?

In fact, classical composers continued to pioneer new works and sounds in the 20th century, just as a new generation of musicians does today. And to celebrate that, “The Five College New Music Festival” offers three days of free concerts next week at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that will feature the work of 23 composers, including several from here in the Valley.

“The New Music Festival,” a bi-annual event begun in 2009, will also showcase performances by more than 30 musicians, predominantly faculty members from the Five Colleges, along with a few alumns, students and special guests. Most importantly, the September 11-13 concerts will offer a broad variety — duets, trios and other small ensembles playing music that draws on different influences, according to UMass composer and contrabass player Salvatore Macchia.

“It’s a program that’s really designed with two main objectives,” said Macchia, one of the key organizers of the festival. “One, we want to support the work of young composers by sponsoring an annual competition for new work. And two, we want to showcase the work of the really talented composers and musicians who are on the faculty” of the Five Colleges.

The show begins Friday, Sept. 11, with performances of five original compositions, each written by a Five College faculty member, one of whom is Macchia. Eric Sawyer, who teaches composition at Amherst College, has contributed an aptly named piece, “September Bells,” for solo violin and percussion built around bells and chimes. Macchia’s piece, “Sleep Binds Them Fast,” includes six musicians — among them a clarinetist, a harp player and Macchia on bass — and a vocal performance by UMass tenor William Hite.

“We really see (the festival) as an opportunity for people to present different kinds of work,” Macchia said. In particular, he noted, compositions that reference the classical tradition but incorporate elements from different genres — folk, world music, jazz — are popular.

The performances are primarily short pieces — Sawyer’s composition, for example, is about eight minutes long — with each of the five separate weekend concerts designed to last approximately an hour and a half. The largest ensemble, meanwhile, will have a dozen musicans, Macchia notes.

Sawyer, a festival co-organizer who has written the music for two well-received operas performed in the region, “Our American Cousin” and “The Garden of Martyrs,” says he’s excited to have his new work in the program. “It’s great to be part of a show that has so many talented composers and musicians,” he said.

Award-winning composer

One highlight of the festival is a performance of the winning composition from a competition for young composers (up to age 35). Macchia says a festival jury seeks applications by posting program information on Internet sites used by composers, attracting applicants from overseas as well as from within the United States; about 60 composers applied for the 2015 festival, Macchia noted.

This year’s winner is Polina Nazaykinskaya, a Russian-born composer, violinist and pianist who received a master’s degree in composition and theory at Yale University and is now working toward her doctorate at City University of New York. Just 28, Nazaykinskaya has won numerous awards and fellowships for her work, as well as praise from The New York Times and other publications, and her music has been peformed across the country.

“She’s really become an impressive figure in a pretty short time,” Macchia said of Nazaykinskaya.

For the UMass festival, she’s contributed “Lamentation of the Bird,” a piece scored for clarinet and piano that uses a mix of melodic and more free-form, quick-paced passages; it will be performed Saturday, Sept. 11, at 2 p.m.

On tap as well is a series of new works for violin duos, music by three Singapore composers and a concert of electro-acoustic music. The latter combines live performance of acoustic instruments with a range of electronic sounds and modifications — anything from playing live with distant musicians via video and Internet links to using computers to add electronic sounds and texture to live music.

For instance, one of the visiting musicians and composers, harpist Jennifer R. Ellis of Michigan, uses a computer hookup with her instrument to add a swirl of different sounds to her playing, or to alter the timbre of the strings themselves; she’s also been known to pluck her harp’s strings with a fork or a screwdriver.

Experimental music

“The New Music Festival” isn’t just about brand-new music. The work of several notable 20th-century composers, mostly from the Modernist school, is also part of the show. Consider Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German composer born in 1928 who was one of the earliest practitioners of electronic music. “Zyklus,” his solo percussion piece, in which the performer plays about 10 instruments — gongs, various drums and bells, vibraphone, cymbals — will kick off the Saturday, Sept. 12, concert at 7:30 p.m.

Other notable names for the festival: Leon Kirchner, a U.S. composer born in 1919 who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his “String Quartet No.3”; Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian-born composer (and painter) who came to the United States in 1934 and whose ideas about harmony and chromatic scales became highly influential in the first half of the 20th century; and Pierre Boulez, the now 90-year-old French composer and conductor who after World War II became a leading proponent of experimentation in music.

“I think that’s one of the strengths of the festival,” Macchia said. “We’ve got work that goes back decades, as well as a lot of much newer compositions. It’s a nice mix.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“The Five College New Music Festival” takes place at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Sept. 11-13. All performances are at Bezanson Recital Hall in the Fine Arts Center and are free. For a full schedule, list of performers and additional information, visit www.5cnmf.com.