With over 300,000 deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States, this is more fitting a time than any to ponder loss. The BlackBox Ensemble, the intrepid New York City-based group led by Artistic Director Leonard Bopp, was up to this task with “Elegy,” a program reflecting on death and the process of letting go, which resonated with the times. Recorded at the Church of St. John’s and Broadway Presbyterian Church, the 45-minute chamber music program showcased five worthy contemporary composers, with earnest performances that did justice to the extramusical connotations.
Juhi Bansal’s The Lost Country of Sight—the four-movement opening piece—takes off from a thin and intangible harmonic fabric made from dreamy piano touches and high-pitched percussion. Ruston Ropac, maskless among her instrumentalist peers, intoned Neil Aitken’s text in a cherubic soprano. Bansal’s vocal writing is effective when it is less text-heavy and more melismatic—longer vocal melodies imparted more meaning to fewer words in the performance, especially when echoed by the piano. This emphasis worked well in the third movement, an a capella lamentation with a whispery vocal line.
More memorable still was Bansal’s cello writing, especially in the closing movement, “I Dream my Father on the Shore,” featuring Jordan Bartow on cello. The ringing of metallic bowls and other assorted idiophones (Jon Clancy on percussion) set the mood for a menacing cello entrance, played on the bridge with harsh, corrosive strokes and a booming resonance in the lower register. The poem’s detailed narrative—“My father lifts his father’s ashes from its urn, a strangely heavy thing,”—earns its place through the disquieting musical backdrop it is given.
Perhaps the piece that made the greatest impression was the closing Elegy (2015) by Jessica Mays. Inspired by the death of the composer’s grandmother, Elegy is scored for piano, flute, saxophone, bass clarinet, guitar, cello, and double bass. It also calls for two sopranos (Sara LeMesh and Ropac) using extended techniques, including plastic cups to distort their voices.
After wordless vocals have set an ambiance of mystery, the piano crashes with a downward frenzy; this gives way to a series of climactic peaks with flute flurries, frenetic glissandos on the cello and bass, low piano rumblings, and rapid ululating howls from the singers. The commotion is offset by a calm choral-like theme—a tip of the hat to Bach—with an accentuated, uneven rhythm to which the conductor taps his baton on the podium. The chorale rhythm feels deliberately lopsided or cut off, yet also feels natural, working as a device to draw attention not only to the quirkiness of the beat but to the harmonic contrast between the choral and the dissonance around it.
Yaz Lancaster’s Intangible Landscapes (2020) for violin, piano, flute, and bass clarinet opens with tentative violin figures in the low register over a murky harmonic foundation. Repetition of nondescript gestures over an overanxious pulsating beat struggle to come together into a coherent whole—but still, Lancaster has a strong sense of resolution. I was almost taken in by the gradual comedown that happens toward the end, with an ebb in dynamics and a soft melodic tinge that gives the piece direction toward a comforting arrival.
A flickering green screen with shifting geometric shapes instead of performance footage made Brittany J. Green’s Maps stand as the odd one out. The piece opens with soft percussive piano that grows restless and ominous with strained strings bowing over the bridge. A succession of effects includes piano rumblings, slapping of strings, and flutter tonguing on the woodwinds. Even if the harmony lends an unshakeable restlessness, the piece occasionally seems to arrive at moments of clarity and introspection, especially when the texture peels off into thinner threads.
The contrast between these pieces and Carlos Simon’s An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave couldn’t have been stronger. The string quartet honors the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, according to Simon’s website, and it was by far the most tonal piece on the program. An Elegy opens with tremolo violins from which a melancholy theme on the viola rises, itself quickly picked up by cello and joined by the violins. But when the tremolos return again, they become tiresome. Simon succeeds in hearkening back to a tonal Romantic language, achieving a sense of solace with chordal swells and pleasant chord progressions, but I was left longing for a more substantial development of the work’s building blocks.
If not for the programmatic theme of loss, the selections might have been loosely unified by a common emphasis on unnerving moods, yet not always carried forward convincingly. Still, the program was a reminder of the creative artist’s spirit to overcome adversity in difficult times.
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