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Recognizing that it is young emerging musicians and composers who will lay the foundation for an exciting new musical aesthetic, Duke Performances, the Duke Department of Music, and the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts are sponsoring a year-long residency by the sextet yMusic at Duke. They had already been in Durham for several days, listening to budding composers from the Ph.D program in composition and holding master classes before their public concert at the Casbah, just blocks from the iconic stone wall of Duke's east campus.
So just who/what is yMusic? The straightforward answer is that this is a young chamber music ensemble from New York City – a sextet, which is a bit unusual in itself – whose members becomes personally involved with the compositional process of contemporary composers. The hype preceding them is formidable and somewhat audacious, but after hearing their concert of revelatory new music and virtuosic playing, I can only accuse them and their publicists of an excess of humility. yMusic (the "y" stands for generation "y", a somewhat vague designation of persons born between the early 80s through the late 90s) consists of six young musicians: Hideaki Aomori, clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Camerieri, trumpet and French horn, Clarice Jensen, cello, Rob Moose, violin and guitars, Nadia Sirota, viola, and Alex Sopp, flute and piccolo (all of whose bios are at the yMusic site).
All of the members of yMusic are classically trained musicians, but they have already attained cult-like status with Indie rock artists and fans as well as have toured with diverse groups. This concert, however, was quite traditional, despite taking place in a bar. The oldest piece on the program was only written in 2009, but except for that, the form of the concert was not much different from your run-of-the-mill string quartet recital.
The Casbah is a narrow bar near Brightleaf Square, but the fact that even that small venue drew a standing-room-only crowd for yMusic's performance is a testament to the fact that great musicians playing even the newest of music can generate interest. The first piece was "Beautiful Mechanical" – also the name of their first CD – by Son Lux. A tight ostinato figure in the cello started out what was a celebration of rhythmic complexity and almost a way for the players justifiably to showboat their remarkable prowess. If a label must be applied, this work might be called "minimalist," but unlike most works of that genre it has humor and knows when enough is enough.
What followed was an incredible evening of superbly crafted compositions by Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, Jeremy Turner, Anne Clark , Marcos Balter, Mark Dancigers, and Nico Muhly. I don't think it's a sign of musical illiteracy to admit that I did not recognize any of these names, but yMusic certainly makes you remember them and want to listen to more of their music. Usually, upon hearing a new work, my reaction tends toward "I need a repeat hearing." This program was unique in that every work dragged me in and made me rapt with attention to every detail. I don't "need" a repeat hearing, but actually want one. I was far from alone in my reaction. Despite being in a bar – where some talking would be expected – the audience was totally silent and completely captivated by the virtuosity of the musicians bringing life to these composers' visions.
What further struck me was that, except for some brief passages played on an electric guitar by violinist Rob Moose, this was an entirely acoustic concert: no gimmicks, effects, computer-generated sounds, or any extraneous stuff. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if this concert had been presented on any of the big chamber music series in the Triangle, it would be a big hit.
yMusic proves that with all the hand-wringing and in all the op-ed pieces by experts trying to analyze where and how to attract new music supporters, one simple fact is overlooked: if well-written new works are performed at the level that yMusic achieves, people will come. Some have gone as far as to designate yMusic as the "saviors of music." That's quite a burden to place on six young musicians, and I doubt that they'd agree with that sentiment, but they certainly will continue to be a positive force in music across many genres. Hopefully they will eventually expand their reach to more traditional venues and even some stubborn older audiences.
yMusic returns in March. For details, click here.