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Metalsmith Rhea Vedro creates compelling steel sculptures with something of a medieval talismanic quality. Incorporating rock crystal, metal leaf, paint and texture, her latest works are inspired by Viking ships, elaborate saddles and ancient Egyptian bird iconography referencing protection as the soul makes its flight into the afterlife. Stefanie Lubkowski, on the other hand, is a composer who has created musical pieces with a repetitive, rhythmic feel that might suggest movement, and even the rhythms of a pecking bird.
So, it may not seem odd that these two artists — one visual, the other musical — should come together for one night of music and art at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge. The Nov. 7 event, titled “2,4,6,8 = Twenty: A Night of the Elements,” will feature entirely new compositions by Lubkowski, along with sculptures from a recent series by Vedro entitled “Peregrination.” The concert kicks off the 20th anniversary season of The New Gallery Concert Series, which has beguiled Boston area musicians, music fans, visual artists and art aficionados since its inception in 2000.
"Something about Rhea being a metalsmith and something about the tactile, the sensory part of it, just made me think of Stefanie,” says Sarah Bob, founder and artistic director of New Gallery. “There’s something about the metal that made me think they would be a pair.”
For two decades, the nonprofit New Gallery Concert Series has functioned as an “underground” gallery/concert hall, happening mostly below the radar of Boston’s mainstream art and music scene.
The concept works like this: take a musician and an artist, mix them together, stir, and allow creativity to percolate. Whatever arises in this artistic alchemy is soaked up by an audience of loyal listener-viewers, who immerse themselves in sound while meditating on art for 90 minutes. So far, New Gallery has hosted more than 66 concerts and presented more than 347 original musical compositions along with the work of more than 36 painters, sculptors, photographers, illustrators and installation artists. About four concerts each season attract on average 50 to 60 people, who might be college students, retirees and everyone in between.
Bob says she was teaching at the Community Music Center of Boston back in 2000 when classical saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky approached her about putting on a concert series.
“He's like, ‘You want to start a series?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ ” recalls Bob. “And he said, ‘What do you want it to be?’ I was newly-graduated and I loved playing contemporary music and I loved visual art. I'm not a visual artist but I've always been drawn to visual art and I’ve always wanted to be surrounded by visual art. So, this was a way for me to be around art and artists in a way that I am not naturally around and also to do the music that I love doing. It was a vehicle for me to be submerged by things I love.”
Bob was able to draw on friends and acquaintances in Boston’s music community for performances. And Boston being Boston, it wasn’t so difficult to find visual artists either, usually through the grapevine. For 16 years, the concerts took place at the school where Bob once taught in the South End, although in recent years they have been held at the New School of Music in Cambridge and the Cambridge Art Association. This season, the series has moved to Bard College. In an effort to bring more musicians and composers into the fold, Bob puts out calls for scores on the New Gallery’s website.
“We have a wealth of artistry and talent and high-quality musicians and artists right in our own community,” says Bob. “There are so many talented people who are so committed to art who are good people… I like tapping into that energy.”
While the concert series has been a consistent presence in the Boston arts community, few people know much about it, and there’s a reason for that. For the most part, music played here is not something you’re likely to hear on the radio. Although the series hosts a variety of music genres, including opera, jazz, electronic, improvisation and folk, it leans toward the avant-garde, often classical contemporary “new music” that recalls Philip Glass rather than Phil Collins, Jennifer Higdon rather than Jennifer Lopez. The visual artists featured are also sometimes more obscure, creating work that doesn’t necessarily catch the attention of traditional galleries. (Full disclosure: I myself was a visual artist featured in Season 10 of the New Gallery Concert Series when my work was paired with the lilting voice of soprano Lisa Saffer.)
When people hear the term “new music” they often think of somewhat inaccessible pieces that don't have enough of a melody to hold interest.
"And sure, there is some of that,” admits Bob. “But I really try to make each event about context. So maybe you normally wouldn't have heard a piece like that, but the way I frame it, you can hear it with open ears or see it with open eyes and in a different perspective.”
The art can serve as an entry point to the music, and for those who may find a particular painting or sculpture daunting, the music can serve as a gateway to better understanding, too. On Nov. 7, Lubkowski and Vedro will provide entry into each other’s work. (A piece by composer David Rakowski, requiring the agile fingers of four pianists, will also be played.)
Lubkowski, a Cambridge classical music composer who also plays guitar in a metal band, has sat on the New Gallery Concert Series board for 10 years, and says she was honored to be asked to write in this anniversary year along with Minneapolis composer deVon Gray, who writes orchestral pieces as well as jazz. She has composed a piano piece titled “Earth Into Air” after seeing Vedro’s sculptures, requiring two pianists to perform it, who this time around will be Bob and John Berman.
“I love how her work in general is very big and bold,” says Lubkowski, who also teaches composition and theory at Concord Academy. “Then when you really start looking, they have all of this intricate detail, sort of a satisfying dual perspective … that was a big inspiration for me, particularly when thinking about a piano four-hands piece, because you can really reflect that same thing, like this big expanse of sound that you can get on the piano when you can play that many notes at once, but also the fact that piano music can be very intricate and very intimate.”
Lubkowski often uses real-world sounds repetitively in her work, and in once piece used the sound of hammering, which Vedro immediately connected to her own work as both a jewelry maker and sculptor, repetitively hammering to create textures on her pieces out of the Medford garage where she works.
"I'm always fascinated by working with other artists, not to be forcing each other to do anything that doesn't naturally come organically, but in terms of understanding how similar such a set process can be across vastly different mediums,” says Vedro, who holds a day job as director of community engagement at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “For me, it's been a really beautiful and interesting process of sharing ideas with these artists."
The New Gallery Concert Series may have flown under the radar for the last 20 years, but its duration on the arts and music scene proves it is not a fly-by-night operation.
“2,4,6,8 = Twenty” takes place Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. in Pickman Hall at Longy School of Music at Bard College in Cambridge. A pre-concert event will be held at 12 p.m. as part of Longy’s “The Multi-faceted Career Speaker Series,” featuring a talk by Rhea Vedro.
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