MATA Festival honcho Todd Tarantino’s program notes for last night’s concert in the plush downstairs Victor Borge Hall at Scandinavia House in Murray Hill are instructive, and worth repeating here. “For this year’s festival an astonishing 1156 composers from 71 countries submitted their work…In hearing so much of the music of early career composers, there are trends that still stand out: baroque ensembles like to play modern music too; the harpsichord is enjoying a renaissance; tonal microtonal music is scarce; like it or not, the accordion remains popular; IRCAM has a phenomenal sound system; performance is at incredibly high levels; and Schoenberg is dead.”
MATA has been showcasing the work of youngish (20s/30s) composers for eighteen years now, since Philip Glass and his pals figured that some of the scores he’d been receiving from admiring, up-and-coming colleagues were worth presenting. From last night’s performance, this year’s slate looks especially promising. The chamber group charged with delivering this particular evening’s worth of material was Norway’s astonishingly mutable Ensemble Neon: flutist Yumi Murakami; clarinetist/bass clarinetist Kristine Tjogersen; saxophonist Ida Kristine Zimmerman Olsen; pianist Heloisa Gomes do Amaral; drummer/percussionist Ane Marthe Sorlien Holen; violinist Karin Hellqvist; cellist Inga Byrkjeland; and soprano Silje Aker Johnsen. Magnus Loddgard conducted.
The first piece, for most of the ensemble, was an Alexander Kaiser reflection on current dystopia such as NSA surveillance and the Syrian refugee crisis. Flitting, pesky motives contrasted with murky horizontal textures, and spaces that grew further and further between as a series of false endings developed (a shtick that would recur throughout the night). The political narrative wasn’t obvious from the music itself; then again, music with an obvious political content can be strident, and this was more attuned to the push-pull of free jazz.
The piece de resistance was Sean Clancy‘s Fourteen Minutes on the Subject of Greeting Cards. Short titles from actual greeting cards were projected behind the trio of piano, violin and cello as variations on a brief series of cells unfolded dreamily, measure by measure, each with its own distinct time signature. Suddenly the infant is three, then he’s getting his license; woops, he’s had an accident. By now, it was obvious where this was going. Or was it? Hint: as a minimalist cavatina, it had brought MATA artistic director Du Yun to tears.
Diego Jimenez Tamame‘s Don’t Condescend followed the same pattern as the first piece, a drony/kinetic dichotomy. Jan Martin Smordal‘s All Play had the musicians playing transcriptions of a noise guitar solo by Astrid Marie Huvestad, whose solo performance via concert film – featuring a bangup job of how to max out the feedback from a Fender amp – upstaged the musicians. It brought to mind a recent chamber transcription of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.
As a satire of indie classical self-indulgence, Neil Luck‘s Bubbles hit the mark, although the sight of the vocalist chugging from a big bottle of soda and then belching over a carefree cut-and-paste of an old English dancehall ditty went on to the point where parody became self-parody. Spike Jones would have nailed this in two minutes ten seconds. The final work, Matthew Welch‘s Comala’s Song, evoked the cumulo-nimbus art songs of Sarah Kirkland Snider as well as Glass’ oeuvre, with its circling, uneasy variations on a medieval bagpipe mode.
The MATA Festival runs through Sunday; tonight’s performance at 8 PM at National Sawdust features French group Ensemble Linea playing even more relevant, politically-charged works. Cover is $25.