New England Conservatory's Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP, affectionately pronounced "Sick Puppy") is back, bringing seminars, master classes, and a week's worth of free evening concerts dedicated to the proposition that the avant-garde is its own invigorating reward.
Institute artistic director Stephen Drury opened Monday night's concert with Luciano Berio's 1965 piano solo "Sequenza IV." Like others in this celebrated series of studies, the piece finds drama in the instrument's inherent contradictions: crisp attack versus sustained decay, notes washed together in clusters or thrown into individual sharp relief.
But Drury's consummate performance brought out a deeper paradox, the tension between spontaneous abandon and technical control. Passages of untrammeled fierceness, with Drury literally slapping the keyboard, suddenly congealed into complex, precise harmonies or filigree of icy intricacy; Drury's rhapsodic phrasing connected the music's inspiration to the instrument's virtuosic heritage.
Early and late works by John Cage followed. The "Six Melodies" for violin and piano, played with limpid simplicity by Drury and violinist Gabriela Díaz, date from 1950. A deliberately rustic, vibratoless string tone and a preponderance of hollow sonorities, hovering between major and minor, echo the austere melancholy of American folk music. But the hesitant motives continually circle back on themselves: a gentle dance around a Möbius strip. For the whisper-quiet 1989 piano duo "Two2," written the year before Cage died, Drury and Yukiko Takagi caressed dissonant clouds of harmony from the keyboards; occasionally, from the fog, chords would emerge that hinted at the lush Impressionism of Debussy or Ravel, a fragmentary, hazy memory of lost opulence. The work's lengthy stillness was both a challenge and, ultimately, a balm.
Composer Per Bloland is currently finishing up a doctorate at Stanford; in his 2006 "Negative Mirror, Part II," a series of suspended electromagnets vibrate the piano's strings, like a mellow version of electric guitar feedback, providing a disembodied underpinning for an instrumental sextet. In an opening series of static aural tableaux, the players' extended techniques -- glissandi, harmonics, various productions of half-pitch, half-noise -- called undue attention to themselves, distracting the ear from the unfolding structure. But a formidable cello solo, given acute, theatrical intensity by Benjamin Schwartz, shifted the piece into high gear, and the exotic sounds became the flow, rather than the interruptions. The ending, and the evening, dissolved into a bewitching, starry cache of ghostly magnetic resonances.