In a conversation a few years ago about the future of music, a composer friend bemoaned how tough it was to get new, large-scale works performed. “The economics of the symphony orchestra are against us,” he said. “We’re all just going to end up writing ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’ over and over again.”
That conversation came to mind Saturday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, as a high-powered new-music ensemble called the Deviant Septet — which mirrors the stripped-down chamber orchestra Igor Stravinsky devised for his iconic “L’Histoire” — showed that music for small groups can still pack an outsize punch.
Stravinsky’s influence was everywhere throughout the evening, which opened with an imaginative rethinking of “L’Histoire” by the six-man composers’ collective known as Sleeping Giant. The work — titled “Histories” — was a suite of personal responses to Stravinsky’s music, with each of the composers writing two or three short movements for the hour-long work.
That’s an approach that could easily result in Stravinsky Lite, but “Histories” turned out to be a fascinating, often compelling piece that captured much of the original’s energy and earthy flavor, with its demented little dances and dark, acerbic edge. Superb playing by all the Deviants added to the general happiness, with percussionist Shayna Dunkelman a particular delight.
It would have been unalloyed joy to hear the septet perform “Histories” and “L’Histoire” back to back, but the second half of the program was given over to a hip-hop version of Stravinsky’s 1951 opera “The Rake’s Progress,” which didn’t fare nearly as well. Written by Elliot Cole and the ensemble’s bassoonist, Brad Balliett, “The Rake” contained some terrific, wildly colorful music, but a relentlessly dense text delivered by Balliett and his brother Doug, the bass player, bogged it down.
The brothers are fine instrumentalists but unconvincing vocalists who couldn’t quite get the thing off the ground. Bring in a couple of powerful rappers, though, and “The Rake” might really take off.
Brookes is a freelance writer.