The Norman S. Benzaquen Hall at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music has the appearance of a spruced up practice room, a tall, raw space with instruments piled in the corner. This was no less effective of an environment for Hotel Elefant, a group overflowing with young, dedicated musicians (seventeen in all) who have banded together in order to—as their press kit affirms—interpret the music of “innovative, living composers.” There is something in the collaborative camaraderie within the group, despite its largesse, that speaks to the delight each member takes up in this goal, and in that way the charm of the hall only added to the affect: a bunch of crazy kids lovingly playing a bunch of crazy music, some of it written from within the clique, all of it sounding totally personal in their hands.
This personability was so key to the success of Hotel Elefant’s debut, not only in the way that each individual member just seemed to be a lovely person (kudos to the video interviews played as the crowd began to file in – a fantastic way to put names and voices to the bevy of faces as well as gain interpretive insight into the music that was just around the corner. Insufferably mystifying new musicians, take note!), but in their willingness to share, on their very first night, music based on things so much bigger than themselves. Genocide, post-traumatic stress disorder, the descent into madness, friends feared in danger, friends passed away, tsunamis, Cambodian deathbed rituals, all contained in six pieces and all things usually shied away from during standard ribbon cutting ceremonies. Hotel Elefant simply brought the beautiful out of all of them.
Three pieces played on the evening were written by Hotel Elefanters themselves, the first of which was the world premiere of executive director Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Dzov Yerku Kooynov [Sea of Two Colors]. The piece is a chronicle of the downfall of Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet, who survived genocide but never regained a modicum of peace in his life. The music is a deft portrayal of this singular, tragic tale, a kind of miniature piano concerto where David Friend and his playing so convincingly captured Vardapet and his plight in a performance that seemed to underlie the performance of the music itself. Sounds from the flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, comprised warped quotations of folk music paired with lilting figures that often made it hard to grasp which particular instrument the music was coming from – an example of Hotel Elefant’s chameleonic precision in performance that italicized the entire evening. There may be seventeen of them, but the sonic versatility of each member of Hotel Elefant is breathtaking and adds so very much to the depth of the music that they play. In Dzov Yerku Koonov, the hair-splitting exactitude of the smaller ensemble captured the depths of madness, with Friend being the focal point and the Sisyphean ascents of his counterparts only furthering the effect.
Compositional talent from within Hotel Elefant was also on display in artistic director Leaha Maria Villareal’s The Warmth of Other Suns for violin and electronics. In the best joining of human and machine since RoboCop, Andie Springer adroitly traversed a copycat braid of sound that was feverish, sometimes animal-like, and Crumb-esque. When fantastic players collaborate with loops or recordings, presets or ringtones, the result is often a spiritless, unexciting humdrum. Not so with Springer, who made the electronic music come to life and vice versa. Peter Bussigel’s Transmongolia for trumpet and video consisted of the composer himself busily creating a throng of looped sounds with everything from a Rubik’s Cube to magnets on metal beside a continuous hi-res shot of neon green Mongolian countryside taken from a train. Accepting the world of sound Bussigel set about creating was not easy, but the brain both clenched at the noise and longed for it after the fact.
While …still life after death by celebrated Cambodian ex-pat composer Chinary Ung cannot go overlooked and made for a poignant and theatrical finale to round out the program, it was featured composer David T. Little’s compositions descanso (after omega) and descanso (waiting) that gave jam-packed Hotel Elefant the most room to live, breathe, and instantaneously ingratiate themselves in the new music community. Little’s music is filled with a self-reflecting awe; it is whole, organic, humane and intimate. “Descansos” are literally roadside memorials that at one point demarcated rest stops in funeral processions and now more commonly sanctify the places where cyclists and auto-traffic meet in disaster. Little’s descansos create a vivid sense of space, made sacred by pristine music. For (after omega) the hall went dark, the absence of light allowing the static, lingering feeling of tragedy to better swell throughout the room, voiced by Jonathan Russell on clarinets and joined by percussion, piano, and crystal glass played from the rear of the audience. The phantasmagoric quality of the ringing glasses and bowed xylophone was matched by Kirsten Volness’ resonant playing on the piano, the familiarity of which lent the most sorrow to music inspired by the loss of a friend. Descanso (waiting) followed a similar theme, composed at a time when Little braced himself for word of a loved one in peril. There was reflection and uncertainty in the sound this time produced by flute, clarinet, percussion, violin, and cello in an arrangement that literally surrounded the audience. “Basking in the sound” is what Little called it in his post-intermission Q&A, and its affect was total, the novelty quickly giving way to a realization that all live music ought to be listened to in the very same way. Yet it was in the nimble hands of Hotel Elefant that this became so clear. The way they play together, and in the case of Little’s music, ever so slightly apart, should ensure that they will continue to assist audiences in making such magical discoveries for a long, long time.