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New Music Extravaganza Tutti Festival Returns to Denison through Feb 11

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford New Music Extravaganza Tutti Festival Returns to Denison through Feb 11The NOW Ensemble performs as part of Denison University's Tutti Festival.
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Every two years since 2004, Denison University’s School of Music hosts a veritable buffet for fans of contemporary chamber music: the Tutti Festival. The musical term tutti means “all together, ” and this festival brings in composers (and world premiere compositions), ensembles, and soloists from near and far. Since its founding by Ching-chu Hu, the Tutti has brought together faculty composers, composers who’ve never had a piece professionally performed, and Grammy winners for a multi-day kaleidoscopic look at where “classical music” is and where it’s going. 2017 is special even by their standards with NYC’s NOW Ensemble and string quartet Ethel, as well as Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas. It’s a must-see for any contemporary music lover in the greater Columbus area.

NOW Ensemble is a who’s who of buzzed-about contemporary talent with extensive resumes and lists of accolades. Flutist Alex Sopp I mentioned in my Ymusic preview a few weeks ago took my breath away at a MATA Festival (a festival with a similar bent toward new compositions) in NYC. Bassist Logan Coale has toured and recorded with The National and Helado Negro as well as worked with Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli, and the Mark Morris Dance Group. Artistic Director and guitarist Mark Dancigers wrote the rich title piece on the ensemble’s third record, Dreamfall, along with earlier pieces “Cloudbank” and “Burst,” has written for a variety of symphonies, and produced Pianist and Managing Director Michael Mizrahi’s remarkable solo records Currents and The Bright Motion. Clarinetist Alicia Lee co-founded Decoda with Mizrahi, was a soloist with the Bergen Philharmonic, and performs regularly in ensembles like Alarm Will Sound and ACME. The group is rounded out by two composers, Patrick Burke, who wrote the piece that hooked me (and many others) on the group, “Awake,” and Judd Greenstein, one of the most identifiable voices of the current generation of “classical” composers whose works for the repertoires of Ymusic, Nadia Sirota, and NOW are always highlights of any record or program where they appear.

The group is rounded out by two composers, Patrick Burke, who wrote the piece that hooked me (and many others) on the group, “Awake,” and Judd Greenstein, one of the most identifiable voices of the current generation of “classical” composers whose works for the repertoires of Ymusic, Nadia Sirota, and NOW are always highlights of any record or program where they appear. About the ensemble, Mizrahi said, “We came into existence 12 years ago with no repertoire; nothing’s written for the combination of these five instruments. So we had to generate a sound.” Asked about their relative longevity and the difficulty of keeping a New York-based new music ensemble together, he said, “If you find an answer to that, let me know. Honestly, part of it is the people, we all like each other and look for reasons for us to be together a few times a year. The astonishing variety of approaches to our repertoire – it’s less about keeping the audience interested and more keeping the musicians interested. Early on there was a fear there would be a couple of cool pieces and not much variety for these five instruments. We seem to have hit on a combination of sounds that people want to write for. That’s part of it as well. The people, the flexibility of the people, the different kinds of experiences – we just got off a tour with the indie rock band San Fermin.”

I talked with NOW’s pianist Michael Mizrahi about their visit to Denison. Mizrahi commented the guest ensemble is in town for the five-day length of the festival doing “many things. Our guitarist [Mark Dancigers] will lead a workshop with instrumentalists, one of our composers will work with composition students. One of the exciting things about this festival is Ching-chu had composers from all over the world submit for the ensemble to consider. We selected eight to perform over the course of the festival, and I believe all of the composers will be in attendance. The exciting thing about a residency like this is to not only get a lot of new pieces written for our instruments but also really explore lots of different ways of treating this quintet. Composers constantly surprise us with how they treat these instruments. A residency like this lets us meet the composers writing for us and get a sense of what they were after as we grow the repertoire. By design, the festival brings in an ensemble and gives composers the opportunity to write for that ensemble. A lot of world premieres.”

Underlining the multidisciplinary quality of the festival, Mizrahi said, “We plan on working with the bluegrass ensemble. We’re bringing an ethnomusicologist, Emily Pinkerton, who will work with anthropology students. [Pinkerton] sings and plays banjo with us Friday and Saturday. She and Patrick Burke composed a cycle for the quintet plus banjo and vocals on transcriptions of Appalachian folk songs, Rounder Songs. We were excited when Ching-chu [Hu] let us, in essence, workshop this piece and perform it in full Friday and as part of our Saturday program.” Pinkerton’s an acclaimed Pittsburgh banjoist and leader of Americana group The Early Mays who heads into the studio with NOW Ensemble right after the festival.

Asked about their finale concert for the festival, Mizrahi said, “We’re doing part of the title track on our last record [Dreamfall], some of the Rounder Songs. A piece by the composer in residence Augusta Read Thomas.  Some of the pieces from the call. We’re also playing a couple of pieces written by Denison faculty members on Sunday.”

Augusta Read Thomas.

Chicago-based guest composer Augusta Read Thomas.

The Chicago-based guest composer for the festival, Augusta Read Thomas, writes music it’s impossible to forget. Her record last year, Of Being is a Bird, is all spectral rapture and the delight of surprise, particularly the eponymous piece for soprano Clare Booth and the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon.  Her work is in demand and performed by the greatest conductors in the world, including Seiji Ozawa, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Daniel Barenboim. Justin Davidson, writing for Newsday at the time, said, of a piece of hers, “The cello begins like a preacher, eliciting murmurs of agreement from a small group of instruments clustered at the front of the stage. The harmonies bristle and the message is indistinct, but the scene has an unmistakable air of theatricality and impassioned grandeur. Gradually, the rest of the orchestra is drawn in by the cello’s rhetoric, until it becomes a vast resonating chamber, echoing, amplifying, colorizing and embroidering what the soloist has uttered…even Brahms might have nodded at the balance of sounds, the heroic eloquence, the measured unfolding of a narrative and the symphonic sense of gravitas.”

Other treats for the engaged, adventurous listener include the Berry & Nance Project (featuring dance and theatre professor Stafford Berry) reprising their wildly received “Who I Be” after its first run at the August Wilson Festival with one of Columbus’ finest composers and drummers Mark Lomax II and his trio on Thursday night. NYC’s string quartet Ethel open the festival with work including that of the artistic director. Joo Won Park who has brought his fascinating brand of electroacoustic composition and improvisation to venues as diverse as Brooklyn rock club Goodbye Blue Monday, internationally acclaimed art spaces Dreamland in Louisville and Behive in Korea, and electronic music festivals from Rutgers to Asheville to Indianapolis. And so much more: 11 concerts along with workshops and discussions.

The Tutti Festival began February 7 and runs through February 11. For a full schedule, visit denison.edu/series/tutti.

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