New Kid on the Block

Alyssa Wang, violinist and the newest member of Hub New Music, shares her thoughts on joining the ensemble and what it means to play chamber music in the 21st century.

The first piece of contemporary music I ever played was a piece for solo violin written in 1990 called Stream Flows, by the Chinese-American composer, Bright Sheng. I was fifteen and had never heard a single piece of classical music by an Asian-American composer before. I remember studying the music and noticing how unusual it looked on the page. There were many markings I’d never seen before, all meant to evoke new and illustrative sounds. The music looked like a painting. And the composer looked like me.

There were many firsts involved with that piece. It was the first time I had ever heard sounds like that on the violin. It was the first time someone recommended e-mailing the composer to seek answers to my questions. It was the first time I played a piece for an audience who was completely unfamiliar with it. And it was my first encounter with a Chinese composer. I also won my first local competition using that piece.

Since then, new music has continued to fascinate me.

 Joining Hub New Music was that perfect combination of being at the right place at the right time. I am just finishing up my time at the New England Conservatory and am more eager than ever to jump into professional life. More importantly, Hub New Music is a deep dive into that magical world of contemporary music that has grown to be an integral part of my musical life.

 Joining them for a series of tours in the fall of 2018 was my first time on the road with Hub, and right off the bat I was impressed. First of all, they rehearsed a lot. That old trope that goes: “it doesn’t matter because the audience doesn’t know it anyway”—you can scrap that. From their perspective, it doesn’t matter that the audience isn’t familiar with the music. All music deserves quality attention and high-level performances. They also acknowledge that part of their job is to convince the audience of the music, and they achieve that partly by playing the best possible version of it.

 Also, they’re much more than just a touring band. They’re educators, too. Imagine my surprise when Mike whips out his laptop to display a carefully crafted PowerPoint presentation directed to college-age musicians about “Demystifying Self-Management.” Not to mention the numerous workshops we hosted with student composers.

 Most importantly, being around them is just fun.

 I remember the first road trip I took with them in September, which was really more of an extended dance party. Parts of the country that I had never seen before were revealed to me through the window of our minivan with Imogen Heap and the Punch Brothers blasting in the background. Then there was that time when we almost got stuck on the top of a snow pass during a blizzard in Denver. And I’ll never forget the wings we ate after a concert at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Did you know that it’s possible to cry from laughter during the rehearsal of a four-part fugue?

 Being the newest member of Hub New Music is a privilege and a dream job. Getting to travel around the world, meeting new people, playing music that no one has ever heard before and getting them to connect with it…let’s just say I’m never bored.

 Playing in a chamber music ensemble also means that I have a certain autonomy over my own playing. Unlike in orchestra, I can’t hide behind a dozen other players. Everything is a solo. I like having ownership over what I play, and I enjoy the challenge. There’s never a dull moment!

 There are so many more adventures to come! For now, I am simply grateful to be a part of the Hub family, and to be involved in the unbelievable process of bringing new compositions to life. Until next time!

Soul House in the Soul House

Michael Avitabile, flutist, gives his thoughts on playing Robert Honstein’s “Soul House” in the house which inspired the piece, in preparation for an upcoming concert at the Peabody Essex Museum.

One of the most beautiful and moving aspects of performing contemporary music is the inherent empathy imbued in a new work. In thinking about this concept, I’m drawn to Leonard Bernstein’s quote that, “any great work of art... revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world — the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”

With a new piece of music, that surreal world Bernstein speaks of is our world. It is an interpretation of the same universe we all collectively inhabit. When we all occupy the same imaginative space created by a new piece of music, we are immersing ourselves in a shared human experience through the eyes and ears of another. In that piece of new music, that abstract universe is just the composer’s interpretation of the actual universe we all live in. It’s how he or she hears their own experiences in modern time.

The point of departure for Saturday evening’s program, Robert Honstein’s Soul House, is no exception. Honstein, who has been a close friend for a number of years, wrote the piece as an extended love letter to his childhood home. Each of the work’s nine movements is evocative of a different section of the house whether it be a Bay Window, Alcove, Backyard, or something more conceptual as with the piece’s concluding movement, Secret Place. It’s not often that we have the privilege to perform a work so deeply personal to the composer, especially one that is written for us. This piece becomes doubly special in that the world it creates and consequently invites the listener into is quite tangible - it’s a yellow house on Newlin Road in Princeton, NJ.

In October, the group had the special privilege of playing Soul House in the Soul House itself. As it turns out, Robert’s parents are selling the house and we desperately wanted to play the piece in the house before we could no longer do so. As we prepare to record the work, it seemed necessary to learn as much about the yellow house Newlin Road as possible. In a way, it was a musical recon mission.

While we expected to see the Bay Window, the Alcove, and Backyard we imaged in rehearsals for months prior, we didn’t expect the utterly life changing evening that came with performing in that house. As we had the entirely-too-meta experience of performing a piece about a house in that house, we couldn’t help but feel that we became part of the narrative from which Soul House was born. We were breathing the strange special air of the piece in the physical place that inspired it. And thus, what was already a very personal piece became much more personal. For us Soul House is not only about Rob’s childhood memories, it’s now colored with our own memories of being there.

The day of the concert was a long one to say the least. We had left another engagement in Ohio at 4am to catch a flight into Newark, NJ, and the post-flight afternoon consisted of heavy napping and semi-conscious pizza eating. This is an all too familiar tale to any traveling musician. That evening about fifty people were crammed into the foyer - in the crowd were members of Robert’s family, colleagues who would soon become new friends, and several of his parent’s neighborhood compatriots. The energy in the room was palpable and infectious, and would make anyone forget the most daunting of long travel days. The performance was followed by an evening of stories, laughter, and a candid round of vodka shots in the Backyard with Rob’s mom. Nights like that only happen a handful of times in one’s life.

As we prepare for a particularly special performance of Soul House in which memories are translated into movement by the brilliance of Urbanity Dance, I’m especially looking forward to recreating the yellow house on Newlin Road for each audience member. In keeping with Bernstein’s words, we aim to “revive” our collective experiences in the Soul House and simultaneously “readapt” the Peabody Essex Museum’s atrium to become the house in which we had such a life-altering evening. Contemporary music offers a distinct empathetic experience and few works are more resoundly true to that experience than Soul House.