The Hartford New Music Festival Takes Over Downtown

Over the years, the term "new music" has taken on a range of loaded meanings. Here's one more: sandwiches.

On Sunday, Kevin Good, a junior at the Hartt School of Music, performed a marathon solo concert at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford. It was the second entry in this year's Hartford New Music Festival, which runs through Oct. 20. Good was vague on the details of the marathon's centerpiece — a 12-part, 5-hour composition by festival director Scott Comanzo called "The Inevitable Sum of What Life Has Done to Me" — but he offered a few crumbs.

"We were talking a year ago talking about writing a piece about a sandwich, and Scott expanded on that idea," Good said. "Without giving too much away, there will be food products and magic tricks."

New music isn't all cuisine and magic, of course. Like most festivals, the HNMF allows you to hear new pieces by living composers alongside iconic 20th-century works, many of which are still relatively foreign to contemporary listeners. And this year's composers-in-residence — Wesleyan professor Neely Bruce and Michael Schelle, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and a resident composer at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind. — are two widely celebrated composers and pedagogues, each with a legacy of prizes, commissions and students a mile long.

The festival's opening night (Oct. 11 at the Charter Oak Cultural Center) paired works by Bruce, Schelle and art-song composer Juliana Hall. Good's marathon (Oct. 13, Charter Oak) followed on Sunday, then "DeConstruction" (Oct. 17, works by Debussy, Schelle and Hartt composer Daniel Morel); "(not) the Third Viennese School" (Oct. 18 at Trinity College Chapel, with works by former students of Bruce and Schelle); and "Transcendence" (Oct. 19, with the premiere of Bruce's large-scale orchestral work "Antiphonies for Charlie" alongside pieces by Charles Ives and composer Lief Ellis). The run concludes with "The Finale IS the Encore" at the CHS (Oct. 20), featuring a second performance of Bruce's "Antiphonies" along with Schelle's "Through the Bright Lights of Hell." Most of the performers — the Generous Ensemble, the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra, the West End String Quartet, the 016 New Music Ensemble, guitarist Zane Merritt and others — are local.

For music fans, these types of festivals, Bruce said, provide much-needed alternatives. "I'm one of these people who really enjoys hearing music that I've never heard before," Bruce said. "Our musical diet is too much the same thing we've heard, and we like it for some reason." These days, pop-music audiences are becoming increasingly segregated, and contemporary music by living composers, performed by real people, adds variety. "We all have a musical diet that's monochromatic. We aren't getting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables… With a festival like this, I can hear a ton of pieces that I've never heard before."

The festival's sub-theme is a nod to 1913, the year that witnessed the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and other sounds that, 100 years later, still carry the power to shock. The effect has softened over the years, Bruce said, as much of Stravinsky's musical language found its way to larger audiences through film scores.

"Any competent score by any composer — John Williams, for example — does all the stuff that Mahler and Schoenberg did, but in a way that appeals to the popular tastes," Bruce said. "Debussy, Stravinsky: that vocabulary is in film music from one end of the spectrum to the next. That has done an enormous amount to popularize the sounds."

New-music scene newbies: bring an open mind. "If people just go to hear a concert and don't carry a lot of baggage with them, if nobody has told them it's esoteric or bad, if they don't have preconceived notions, they almost always find something that they like," Bruce said. He recalled an instructive encounter with a fast-food drive-in cashier, as Bruce was blasting Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand through his car sound system. "[The cashier] was fascinated with the music. He said, 'What is that?' I told him, and he said, 'Oh...' He realized this wasn't what he was supposed to listen to."

Good, a Las Vegas native, is new to musical marathons. He expected audience members to come and go during the eight-hour stretch, but he would have been thrilled if some people listened to the whole thing. Good also said he'd be prepared in another sense.

"I will also be fasting that day, so the sandwich will be even more delicious," Good said.

Hartford New Music Festival

Through Oct. 20; check for schedule.

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