The Cleveland Institute of Music’s New Music Ensemble did the inaugural honors at MOCA last Thursday, Nov. 15, playing a quartet of contemporary works in the ground-floor gallery. The ambient noise from the adjacent entryway — phones ringing, staff workers talking, heater fans cutting in and out — robbed the performance of gravitas. But the sleek look and sharp angles of the new space inside, and rhythm of urban life with car headlights streaming past the windows outside, provided ideal aesthetics. And the acoustics were surprisingly good, given the bare concrete floor and high ceiling.
The ensemble, a group of CIM students, played two pieces by Sean Shepherd, the American composer who visited the school for a workshop and concert earlier this month. The opening work, the birds are nervous, the birds have scattered, suggests flocks in flight with darting clarinet and violin lines against floating piano chords. With an obvious nod to Messiaen, the piece takes a number of unexpected dips and twists, which were rendered in crisp fashion by the student trio.
Shepherd’s other piece, simply titled Trio, is a three-movement work with playful subtitles like “Slow Waltz of the Robots” that was the highlight of the evening. It states and develops several themes in a sophisticated yet accessible manner, incorporating ideas that reflect the site of its world premiere, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The young performers were up to the high standards of the music, giving it a strong internal integrity and occasional sweet lyricism. In particular, violinist Natalie Lin and cellist Andris Koh were superb in their solos and duets.
Keith Fitch is the director of the New Music Ensemble and head of the composition department at CIM. His Manhattan Rolls is a series of virtuostic progressions written for the marimba that requires a high degree of concentration, both from the performer and the audience. Willam DeLelles showed versatility with the mallets and sensitivity in finding some of the subtleties of the piece, a particularly difficult task given all the background noise.
Fitch conducted the ensemble in the concluding work, Frederick Fox’s Devil’s Tramping Ground. An airy, textural work for a seven-piece chamber group that calls for very fine gradations in the playing, it outstripped the students’ technical capabilities — the only piece of the night that did. However, it featured some nice work by pianist Daniel Parvin, who was consistently good throughout the entire evening.
There was a thread to the program: Fox was a teacher of Fitch, who in turn has taught Shepherd. So as Fitch noted in his remarks, the pieces bore some similarities in ideas and approaches, passed on and developed over three generations. It would take a trained ear to pick those up, but no matter. The works stood fine on their own, and it was a treat to hear them at MOCA, which has great potential as a performance space. Here’s hoping the thread that was started by CIM there last week continues and leads to a lot more innovative music in Cleveland’s coolest space.