The Hot Air Music Festival is a student run program put together by Carrie Smith, Andrew Meyerson, and Matthew Cmiel. The focus of the event is new music which, in classical connotation, means music written within the last 60 years by mostly living composers. That being said, the lineup did run the gamut of old new music as well as very new new music. Compared to average classical concerts, this one certainly takes a huge step towards letting go of the past. The fact that it’s put together by young people is either a sign of naivety about the reality of putting together successful music festivals if you’re a pessimist or a sign of good things to come from the future music directors of the world if you’re an optimist. Personally, I like to imagine it’s the latter.
I hate to start off describing the strongest performance of a show but I also love doing things chronologically. By the time I arrived at the festival a group of high school students were coming out to perform a piece called Lies You Can Believe In for string trio by a composer listed on the bill as Missy “Misdemeanor” Mazzoli. My expectations were very low due to this bit of cringe-worthy humor. This performance was nothing short of stunning though. The music itself was beautifully crafted. It had the rhythmic intensity of early Stravinsky and hints of Janacek’s harmonic language. This was music you could get excited to. The energy may have also had a lot to do with the performance of this young group. Each player seemed intensely involved in what was going on, especially Alexi Kenney on Violin. Not knowing the piece, it’s hard to say how accurately it was played, and I have the feeling that there were plenty of flubs and balance imperfections, but it really didn’t matter. The enthusiasm brought to the work was intoxicating.
Immediately following was Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 5. Maybe it was just the shift from such an emotionally tense piece but this one, as well as the performance, seemed to take a while to find its stride. I wasn’t immediately sucked into what I was hearing but once it got good, it was real good. This wasn’t a flawless performance as the violins, played by Anna Washburn and Kevin Rogers, seemed to have trouble staying together during the quick flashy lines that were interspersed throughout the piece but it was fun nonetheless. By the end you could find audience members nodding along as if this was a hip-hop concert and the players just seemed so happy, especially during the false stops closer to the end of the piece which totally faked me out at first.
While one could draw a line between the Glass and Mazzoli pieces, it was very difficult to figure out how Xenakis’s Okho for a djembe trio fit in. I have to put a disclaimer here in saying that I’ve never been able to find a Xenakis work that I truly enjoyed. That said, this one became pretty tiresome. The composer’s obsession with math never turns into something moving or touching or even interesting. Certainly there were some intense mathematical concepts being applied here but you can’t hear them and so they don’t make you curious. The performance didn’t help the state of things either. The players were almost completely expressionless the whole time. I had the feeling that Asako Okamoto was simply bored after a while. For being a piece about rhythm, this was an incredibly static performance. Only after the applause kicked in did some smiles appear but by that time it seemed more like relief at the completion of what is probably terribly difficult music to keep together. Kudos to them for that accomplishment at least.
Next up was Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, a beautiful piece that should need no introduction. Matthew Cmiel conducted this as well as the following two works. The playing throughout Part’s music was as tight as it should be for such a simple, on the surface, piece. Where things didn’t seem to come together was the interpretation. There are so many textural possibilities to music of this sort and they weren’t brought out at all. It seemed that it was just played instead of played with a sense of purpose.
Schnittke’s Concerto Gross No. 1 or, as I like to call it, Schnittke-does-Penderecki-and-some-generic-baroque-and-romantic-composers, followed. For a work that has so many fruitful ideas popping up all over the place, Schnittke sure did a good job of squashing them. I suppose that’s a fault of the polystylistic thing, or a success if you have a short attention span. This work sounded very difficult to play in every sense yet it was handled with great care. The soloists were particularly on point and the balance was handled much better than in the previous work. It almost doesn’t matter how well you perform if what you’re performing isn’t all that great unfortunately.
John Adams’ Shaker Loops was the point at which everything finally came together. Now we had a brilliant composition as well as an inspired performance. The music of Adams being a sort of endurance test, it’s understandable that poor execution of a harmonic here and there or of a ritardando will happen but it didn’t subtract from the overall feel of what was being played. This was certainly a fitting finale to an all around great program. Hopefully the next go round will smooth out the hiccups and turn into something even more lovely.