Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Matthew Aucoin and the Asia/America New Music Institute, at Peabody Essex Museum

Matthew Aucoin and the Asia/America New Music Institute, at Peabody Essex Museum

Artistic residencies hold great potential. 

Coupling the freedom to explore ideas and then present them to the public, largely without filtering from commercial or bureaucratic entities, artists can bring out aspects of their own work and that of their colleagues that might go undeveloped.

Matthew Aucoin’s residency at the Peabody Essex Museum is one such arrangement. Aucoin has plenty going on—another residency at the Los Angeles Opera; composing commissions from the Met and elsewhere; guest conducting gigs in Europe and America. On a smaller scale, his art-song cycles of poems from both Paul Celan and James Merrill have reached audiences with their sensitive and inventive scoring. 

The PEM position, now in its fourth season, allows him to engage compatriots, and explore ideas and compositions in unique ways. 

Saturday evening’s performance featured composers affiliated with the Asia/America New Music Institute (www.aanmi.org), which, as is obvious, explores new music connections on both sides of the Pacific. AANMI is a collaborative of composers and performers, founded by Chad Cannon in 2013, and several of them were on hand at this performance in PEM's Atrium space to present new compositions and discuss them informally.

Joining Cannon and Aucoin were composers Paul Frucht, Sun-Young Park, Garth Neustadter and Xiaogang Ye. Musicians from A Far Cry, conducted by Yuga Cohler, supported soloists Rachel Lee Priday (violin) and lyric tenor Sean Christensen. Each composer presented a new work, preceded by casual give-and-take moderated by Aucoin.

There was no single thread linking the works, and hardly any stylistic generalizations that would be worth drawing. (That said, it was surprising that most of the works were tonal in the traditional sense, and that very few extended techniques were demanded of the performers.)

All the compositions had genuine appeal—individual voices, already with powerful artistic integrity—which will bear watching. Not all of them could possibly be discussed in this space, unfortunately.

Cannon’s “Wild Grass on the Riverbank,” settings from the Japanese poet Hiromi Ito, were sensitively interpreted by Christensen and the ensemble. Ito’s complex relationship with America is metaphorically explored through her thoughts on the natural world, in beautiful and tensely observed poetry. 

Cannon demands a range from sprechstimme to whispers to shouts from the vocalist, and engaging interaction instrumentally. A central section, with the repeated (by both Christensen and some of the instrumentalists) “You get over there,” brought alive the harrowing context of authority and permission in the immigrant experience.

Aucoin’s sole work, a setting from Merrill that Aucoin entitled “Tony,” also stood out. He accompanied Christensen at the piano. The text—from Merrill’s epitaph “Tony: Ending the Life,” stands poignant enough. Merrill, dying of AIDS himself, honors a friend who has died with the same disease, “dying everybody’s death.” 

Aucoin’s setting takes the remembrance a step further. His vocal lines are strong: phrased boldly, articulated with emotion but also with directness. It’s his piano accompaniment, usually an afterthought in art-song—clever, idiosyncratic and alluring—that sets the piece apart.


Aucoin and the fellows of AANMI return to PEM in March and in November 2017 for more concerts. Keep an eye on both web sites, www.pem.org and www.aanmi.org for details.

The Pros and Cons of Death

The Pros and Cons of Death

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra stage "Der Rosenkavalier," Sept. 29, 2016

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra stage "Der Rosenkavalier," Sept. 29, 2016