Jeffrey Means is not only a founder and the artistic director of the ambitious Sound Icon, he is the man-about-town in the Boston new music scene. Whether he is conducting the Callithumpian Consort, the Firebird Ensemble, the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble, or one of the many concerts put on by academic institutions like Tufts, Brandeis, and NEC, Means, despite only being at this for only five years, has the experience of a seasoned veteran. He has taken his new music clout and channeled it into Sound Icon to not only fill an interesting niche in the Boston new music scene specifically, but also, and more importantly, fill a void in the American landscape of contemporary music ensemble repertoire. Means has an extraordinary vision to usher in the sinfonietta-era of contemporary music in Boston by programming and performing rarely played works, most of which are European. It should be no surprise that the “rarity” of these behomeths is due mostly to the extreme level of difficulty combined with the typically larger (and more expensive) performance forces. Means seems to be nonplussed by this. As Sound Icon prepares for its upcoming second full season they have already taken on mammoth works like Haas’s “in vain” which received spectacular reviews and Rihm’s “Concerto Seraphim.” The sheer gargantuan measure of these works and the stellar performances don’t seem to stack up to the unassuming, affable, and incredibly self-depracating nature of Means. I had the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss his career, especially in regards to his group Sound Icon.
What attracted you to specializing in contemporary music?
It was never a conscious decision, in fact when I was in my masters I only studied, almost exclusively, common-era repertoire. I didn’t actually talk with anyone or study conducting contemporary music intensively until the last few years, and I have been out of school for, what, I think, five years now? In fact when I was in my masters I was pretty much dead set on conducting orchestral repertoire and hopefully including new music, but not only new music. That was my mission for many years. But now I feel that I came to specialize in new music because it’s where I belong, not because it’s a decision I made and then worked to make it happen. I think there was a confluence of purposeful events that caused me to be here doing new music, and I think it’s the right fit for my skill set. The way I rehearse in particular lends itself to new music well. I’m particularly detailed in rehearsals and tend to talk more than most conductors doing works like Beethoven symphonies would need to. In new music I think it is necessary to speak about what’s going on in the piece in rehearsal more than one would with common era repertoire because its generally more complex music and I think everyone needs to be securely on the same page with interpretive elements, like what’s in relief and what isn’t. So, [new music] works out well for me.
Why a sinfonietta?
I believe that the sinfonietta is the primary vehicle of the composers we [Sound Icon] represent to make their greatest artistic expression. I wanted to have an ensemble of solo instruments. I think some of the best music being written now is for ensembles with solo instruments. Now, just looking at the issue more broadly, I also believe that the sinfonietta is destined to become what the orchestra has been for maybe the past 150 years or so. I think most of the best composers working today, when they write for orchestra they end up writing for solo instruments anyways. And many scores for orchestra by avant-garde composers now have the strings all divisi all the time so its solo parts, and I just think the clarity of one musician per part in a large ensemble context is what composers writing in my preferred aesthetic need now.
Given the inundation of European music in Sound Icon’s inaugural seasons and the omnipresence of Americanism in most other new music groups, are you bringing Europe back to Boston, and why? Haven’t we had enough of that?
I think it’s true that a lot of the new music community here thinks that doing the current European music is some form of exoticism. Conversely, one can also say that doing what a lot of groups are doing, which is entirely American music, has grown a bit cliché. That’s kind of how I feel about it, to some extent. It’s not that I’m against the idea of doing American music, but it’s that if you are trying to do something artistic and make it about musical value, then it seems like your programming decisions should not be bound by nationalism. And so we do a lot of European music, not because it’s European, but because it’s the type of music we want to do. And we are programming some American music, too. We are doing Carter’s “Asko Concerto” and the “Double Concerto” this coming season, and a new work by John Aylward as well, (who is a Carter scholar, as well as a composer). So, yeah, there’s some American music coming up and we’ve spoken about a number of other Americans. Although, I think a lot of the American composers we talk about are the type of composers people would say have a “European bent” in their composition. But for me it’s about aesthetics and the way the piece strikes the audience more than what continent it’s coming from.
I haven’t seen anything up for the next season yet. Can you divulge any of your plans yet?
We are definitely going to announce it soon, so I can let a lot loose. Although we are not 100% there, more like 90%. So, this past season we had three events and we’re more than doubling that actually, we have seven events this season. The first concert has Grisey’s last work “Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil”, which is exciting for us. It’s for soprano and sixteen instruments. And that’s like a big magnum opus type of piece, lasting about forty minutes. It’s incredibly beautiful. That concert also has a piece by Mark Andre, a piece called “Ni” for smaller ensemble. Late in the season, I mentioned the Carter “Double Concerto”, and that’s part of the Fromm Concerts which we’re playing next year at Harvard. That’s really exciting because it’s the 40th anniversary of the Fromm Foundation. So the concerts are a celebration of the foundation and they are made entirely of Fromm commissions, and one of the most famous Fromm commission is the Carter “Double Concerto.” But there’s all kinds of goodies on that, like Bruno Maderna’s “Giardino Religioso”, which is an incredibly beautiful piece, and is hardly ever played. It’s an exciting thing for us. We’re playing a concert at Tufts University, at the Granoff Center, which is one of the best concert halls in Boston, but few know about it for some reason. I really love that hall. We are playing a Pierreluigi Billone piece, who is a really exciting Italian composer, and an Olga Neuwirth piece called “Torsion” for solo bassoon and ensemble, which is really attractive. A really big event is Happening on November 17th. We are playing at the Fenway Center, a space which is close to NEC and Northeastern. It’s a really nice concert space. And that’s an all electroacoustic program. We’re doing a pretty recent piece by Georg Friedrich Haas (a composer we like to represent). That piece is called “…und…” which is an incredibly beautiful piece (a half-hour piece) for large ensemble and electronics. Also on that concert we are doing two pieces by Philippe Leroux. We’re bringing Leroux in, he’s teaching at McGill this year, and he’s going to come to Boston to join us. We are doing his “Voi (Rex)”, for soprano and sextet, which is an example of a smaller instrument piece we would do, but it is big logistically. It has a very elaborate electronic component. And we’re doing his violin concerto, it’s called “(D’) Aller” which Gabriela Diaz is playing. So, two Lerouxs and Haas on that concert. Yeah, its a big program.
Where does Sound Icon fit into Boston culture? Furthermore, where does it fit in American culture?
Well I’m interested to see what’s going to happen, we are still fairly young. This season will be our second full season – kind of our third season, because we had a half season to start. I like being Boston centric right now. I’m pro Boston and I worry sometimes that lots of people in Boston who are trying to do new music, or even specialize in something else (like early music), are trying to get too involved in the New York scene, just because we’re in relatively close proximity to New York. I have some close colleagues in New York and I like what they’re doing there, but I like the fact that we’re in Boston and we’re presenting something in Boston by Boston musicians. That’s meaningful to me. So right now we’re very content trying to fill a gap in the Boston music scene and giving people live performances of what I think of as masterpieces of our time, which they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to hear. A far as how we fit in nationally, I think there’s only maybe four or five other groups that I can think of who are doing a sinfonietta type of thing, because it is pretty expensive. And, in this country there isn’t a lot of money for it. So, I’m happy to feel that we are one of the only groups doing what we do. There’s a lot of the same out there in the contemporary music world. But, it’s too early for me to forecast how we’ll end up fitting nationally. I don’t know if we’re going to travel a lot; right now I’m just trying to get good performances in Boston. I guess that’s where we’re at. A lot of the pieces we are doing are US premieres, or maybe they’ve only been performed once before. Hardly any of them are commonly performed. So, I certainly hope it spreads more. We have talked about recording projects as a way to really get it out there. But, we will see what happens.
For more info, visit: http://www.soundicon.org