Boston Globe - September 20, 2008 - Jeremy Eichler

New-music fest opens with flourish

The inaugural Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music kicked off Thursday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art. It appears to be the first time that the local new-music scene has had anything quite like it: eight concerts over four days with performances by most of the city's resident ensembles and a few outside guests. Rounding up all those groups under one roof appears to have been a daunting logistical feat, but in theory, it's exactly what the scene needs to pull it together and increase its profile.

Getting the festival off the ground did require an infusion of outside support from the Ditson Fund at Columbia University. At the moment, Ditson plans to throw a new-music party in a different city every other year. Boston was chosen as the first, in part thanks to its vibrant new-music community.

The full generational range of that community was on display Thursday night, with the early-evening performance by the Firebird Ensemble, a group launched in 2001, and an 8 p.m. performance by Boston Musica Viva, a veteran ensemble founded some 40 years ago, before most of the Firebird players were even born.

All told, it was a night of high-quality performances and a slightly low-energy atmosphere. (A rousing welcome from festival curator Gil Rose might have helped set the tone, but Rose, never one to hog the spotlight, chose to avoid it altogether.) Firebird opened its program with Curtis Hughes's "Danger Garden," an animated piece full of sharply contrasting ideas that Hughes mischievously hurls together and watches how they collide. Mario Davidovsky's "Flashbacks" by contrast evoked a fractured landscape of memories but did so with remarkable precision, clarity, and timbral control.

Clarinetist Rane Moore gave a sensitive and nimble rendition of Elliott Carter's "Gra," a solo exercise in spiky modernist virtuosity, before Firebird concluded its set with Lee Hyla's richly expressive "Polish Folk Songs," full of actual folk material that gets an abstract but earthy treatment. The Firebird players seemed to relax into this work, and gave it some of their most committed and enjoyably freewheeling playing of the night.

Hyla's piece was written for Boston Musica Viva, so it served as a fine segue to the second part of the evening. BMV music director Richard Pittman opened with the premiere of Julie Rohwein's atmospheric "Borne on the Wind," and proceeded to Gunther Schuller's utterly charming "Four Vignettes," with its first movement full of glassy harmonics and wispy flute gestures that flicker like flames.

Ronald Perera's "Three Poems of G√ľnter Grass" used tape and imaginative ensemble writing to vividly conjure the melancholy and anguish of life in postwar Germany. "Tracer" by Richard and Deborah Cornell was a multimedia work that never quite found the right balance between music and video. The night ended with "Twilight Colors," Chou Wen-Chung's peaceful if slightly monochromatic evocation of the evening sky over the Hudson Valley. Pittman and his crew gave sensitive and assured performances throughout. The festival's momentum and intensity will likely build through the weekend. Concerts run through tomorrow.

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