Arts, Features

Review: Splinter Reeds shines with innovative student-composed works

It’s not uncommon to hear the sounds of retuning instruments, shuffling programs and talking audience members at concerts. Not every show will feature musical whispers, breaths or cell phones in their compositions, but none of this felt out of place as Splinter Reeds performed innovative new works composed by Boston University students. 

Splinter Reeds, a wind quintet based in San Francisco, showcased works by featured BU student composers as well as other wind arrangements in a concert at the College of Fine Arts Concert Hall Tuesday and a workshop Monday. The compositions performed matched the quintet’s hope to bring contemporary music styles to wind repertoire.

Splinter Reeds, Boston University Center for New Music’s artist-in-residence, performs music composed by students at a free concert in the College of Fine Arts Concert Hall Tuesday. ALI AUDET/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The group opened with Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Hungarian Rock,” which was originally written for harpsichord in 1978. The new orchestration for the traditional wind quintet captured the spirit of the original composition, featuring Splinter Reed members Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Bill Kalinkos on clarinet, David Wegehaupt on saxophone, Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet and Dana Jessen on bassoon. 

After a solid opening piece, the quintet moved on to student work — each piece pushing more and more boundaries — including pieces with stereos, audience members’ cell phones and nontraditional parts of their instruments. 

“Fire Cat Closed,” a piece by Luc Cianfarani, a second-year master’s student in CFA, had an ominous opening followed by an overlapping, exciting rhythm. The instrumentalists accompanied their melody by blowing air through their instruments, a more contemporary movement. The “extended rising and incessant gesture,” which Cianfarani described in the program, was too incessant. However, the piece’s resolution was worth it  — its solid finish was grand and satisfying.

“Rain on the Still Lake,” composed by Elena Levi, a junior in CFA, delivered in its imagery of raindrops on a lake. The quintet was cut down to a trio of oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Their sounds melted together to create perfect, supportive voices along with overlapping spoken “shhh”s carrying the rain through the thunderstorm.

“The Mist in June,” by Tak Cheung Hui, a Hong Kongese doctoral student in CFA, branched away from natural imagery into political statements. The tension and feedback from the instruments mirrored the process of documenting the recent political crisis in Hong Kong, according to the program. 

“Contaminare,” a piece in Splinter Reeds’ core repertoire, was described by the artists as “underwater circus music.” The composition was written by Jannik Giger and included English horn instead of oboe, which changed the tonal relationship between the instruments, creating a new, deeper color. The piece was premiered at the Swiss Chamber Music Festival in 2013.

Following intermission, Izi Austin, a final year master’s student in CFA, challenged the norm with her piece “tell me what you want to hear.” Four stereos spoke “do you hear me?” and overlapping messages, played through static as if they were voices in the audience’s own heads. The words and notes collided to show the relationship between the self and the other, according to the program. The overall ambiance of this piece landed strongly and the well-received message left an impression. 

The next piece, “Keep Breathing” by Joogwang Lim, a master’s student in CFA, used almost entirely breath. The instrumentalists removed mouthpieces, only used reeds or even just their mouths. The exchange was entertaining and fun, but intense and serious at points. It ended with laughter and a final bow. The program directed the audience to the song’s cultural nod to Inuit traditions of katajjaq, a vocal game that ends with laughter.

Yu-Tung Cheng, a second-year master’s student in CFA, wrote “Limbus,” a slow, airy piece to show the “mumbling whispers and choked moans of unbaptized infants,” according to the program. The on-the-edge tone and imagery capturing the limbo between heaven and hell made up for the slight lack of energy in the piece.

The final piece, “Antenna Studies” by Paula Matthusen, was a culminating work that put the instruments on center stage, while not spotlighting one in particular. The piece was described as a “soundscape” by the performers, and it truly achieved that energy.

The contemporary music pushed boundaries of the conventional concept of a wind quintet as opposed to traditional stringed ensembles, while opening up new instrumentation. The performers on stage truly put their work into playing the BU students’ original compositions. Splinter Reeds brought exactly what BU’s CFA concert needed — a different way to hear music.

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