Vermont composers of new chamber music have cherished a singular resource for the past 27 years: the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble. Led by clarinetist Steve Klimowski, an affiliate artist at the University of Vermont and Middlebury College, the ensemble specializes, according to its website, in performing "rarely heard 20th- and 21st-century chamber music and works by living composers" — most of them Vermonters.
Particularly rarely heard are works whose premieres are steadily receding into the past. As many a composer will attest, everyone wants to premiere a work; it's that second performance that is so hard to secure. The VCME, which has already commissioned 92 works and premiered 114, intends to rectify that situation at its concerts in Montpelier and Burlington this weekend.
"Bring in the New! A Concert of VCME Premieres and Commissions," performed by various combinations of five instrumentalists and one singer, will give repeat airings to four recent works by Vermonters. They include "Noctiluca Scintillans" by Peter Hamlin, a Middlebury College music professor; "Bridge of Sighs" by Laura Koplewitz, who grew up in St. Albans and Burlington; "Bagatelles" by David Feurzeig, who teaches music at UVM; and "Songs About Cheese" by Michael Close, the music teacher at Moretown and Worcester elementary schools. VCME commissioned the first three of those works, premiering Hamlin's in 2007 and Koplewitz's in 2005. Feurzeig's will premiere this weekend.
The program will finish with a piece by David Lefkowitz, a California composer whose work VCME has performed before. "Surfer's Guide for the Perplexed (or, Jonah on the Raging Sea)" was commissioned by a different group but given its Vermont premiere by VCME.
Klimowski, a Fairfax resident, explains by phone — in a few spare moments before a rehearsal — his reasoning for including Lefkowitz. "He represents the fact that we don't only do Vermonters, but we primarily do — because if we don't, who will? I'm a bit of a locavore guy in that way."
(As of last summer, one other performance possibility is open to Vermont composers: the contemporary music ensemble TURNmusic, founded by frequent VCME conductor Anne Decker.)
"One of the great things about this group is that they have a lot of long-term relationships with Vermont composers all over the place," comments Feurzeig, a pianist whose composition interests include jazz and ragtime. "When they started [in 1987], new 'classical' music was not popular with audiences," he adds, making the group's longevity even more remarkable.
That may have been due to a perception that new music was "forbiddingly difficult," says the 49-year-old. Feurzeig, however, opines that this "alleged hegemony of dissonant music" was merely a function of the cultural weight given to difficult music at mid-century.
Today, he says, there's a great variety of new music. Feurzeig himself is increasingly interested in writing "funny music — which is hard. It's not always obvious, because there's no text." In "Bagatelles," a work for flute and clarinet, he says, "There's a real game-playing aspect, both in the composition ... and in the drama between the players. [Musicians] are not sound-producing machines; they're characters in a drama," he says.
In one movement, for instance, the clarinet and flute leap between registers, creating the effect of four instruments. Klimowski and flutist Anne Janson will perform the piece.
About the program as a whole, Feurzeig enthuses, "I would encourage people to check it out, and not assume this is stodgy or narrowly old-fashioned."
Validating the picture of new music as extremely varied, Hamlin, a 63-year-old composer whose interests range from electronic music to choral works, describes his own piece as "neo-impressionistic" with a solid origin in visual imagery.
Hamlin had VCME's commission in mind when he came across a New Yorker article that mentioned microscopic phosphorescent sea organisms. It reminded him of swimming among them as a teenager on Cape Cod. "When you walk in the sand, they light up your footprints, and when you jump in the water, they're all around you. It's like swimming in the stars," Hamlin recalls.
Having named his piece after the Latin for those organisms — Noctiluca scintillans — Hamlin says he meant for its harmonic language and structural properties to "capture the mood, [which was] awe-inspiring and pointillistic." The work is for flute, clarinet, violin and cello; violinist Letitia Quante and Klimowski's wife, cellist Bonnie Thurber Klimowski, will perform with Janson and Klimowski.
Hamlin dedicated "Noctiluca Scintillans" to the VCME — a group he considers an enormous resource for local composers seeking a chance to have their new works heard.
"Steve's a hero to all of us," says Hamlin warmly. "It's such a tough thing to get things done like this" — i.e., program new chamber music regularly — "and he does it consistently and well."