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Showing off Boston’s wealth of contemporary music ensembles

“Only New York has more contemporary music than we do,” said Oliver Caplan (center), artistic and executive director of the Juventas New Music Ensemble.James P. Jones

The Boston New Music Festival began in 2016 as a way of showcasing the work of a large swath of the city’s contemporary music ensembles. From the start, it shunned competition in favor of a collaborative spirit, a classic case of all boats being lifted by a rising tide.

“Only New York has more contemporary music than we do,” said Oliver Caplan, artistic and executive director of the Juventas New Music Ensemble, which founded the festival and is its organizing force. "And if you’re thinking per capita, Boston would blow New York out of the water. So one of our goals is to help tell that story [by] bringing together the big players and the small players — everyone on the spectrum … to make something bigger than the sum of its parts.


"I don’t consider our peer organizations our competitors; they’re our friends,” Caplan added in a recent interview. “Our competition is Netflix.”

That the strategy has found a willing audience is clear from the festival’s growth from a single concept concert in 2016 to 11 events in 2017 to 15 in 2018. Planning for this year’s iteration of the festival, now a biennial event, was already underway when the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic became clear and the city’s concert life abruptly shuttered.

In a series of actions that now seem routine but at the time were anything but, Juventas canceled its April concert, shifted other performances online, and made the decision to make its entire 2020-21 season virtual. That experience would prove invaluable when the time came to move the entire festival online. Hence, this year’s Virtual Boston New Music Festival, running from Oct. 29 through Nov. 15.

A vital lesson from Juventas’s experience, Caplan noted, was that it was possible to continue bringing music to audiences, even under dire conditions. That helped him maintain a sense that “it was never, are we going to do the festival this year? It was, how are we going to do the festival this year?” he said. "Because if we’re not making music and art right now, why are we doing it ever?


“Music helps people cope with difficult times,” he continued, “and at a time when people are at home more than ever, and they’re sick or lonely or depressed or scared, it’s an opportunity for us to help people. And I think that’s part of our mission as arts organizations.”

A couple of ensembles who hadn’t been streaming concerts dropped out of the festival, but the rest agreed to the all-online format. The virtual festival will be the largest yet, comprising 22 events (all but two of which will be live). Each group will stream performances from its own platform, with the festival website functioning as, in Caplan’s words, “a kind of town hall” for each ensemble.

That’s intentional, he explained, because “the idea is to build an audience for each of the participants, not for the festival. So we want people to come here to see what they can try out, and then we want them to go become audience members of the participants.”

Though the festival has moved in a direction few could have predicted at the beginning of the year, and the upheaval has been extensive, the cooperative spirit on which the festival was built remains intact. Caplan recalled a recent organizational Zoom meeting with the leaders of the constituent ensembles, in which people were exchanging advice on platforms and other topics.


“My sense amongst our colleagues is that this has helped people rededicate to their missions, and people are excited to innovate and find new ways to connect with their audiences,” he said. “There’s this feeling of wanting to help each other get through this and survive as organizations, but also an optimism about the role that we collectively can play in making people’s lives better in a really terrible time.”


Oct. 29-Nov. 15, concerts streaming via various platforms. More information at www.bostonnewmusicfestival.org


Guerilla Opera (Oct. 30) — The veteran chamber opera organization presents “Dreamwalker,” a program composed of “Papillons,” a theatrical elaboration of Kaija Saariaho’s cello piece “Sept Papillons,” and “Ofelia’s Life Dream,” with music and libretto by Caroline Louise Miller.

Boston New Music Initiative (Oct. 31, Nov. 1, 7, and 14) — The collective offers a series of “Quarantune Snacks,” brief programs of composers and works that should be new territory for most, if not all, listeners.

Fen Percussion Duo (Nov. 2) — This project by percussionists Wesley Fowler and Matthew Carey gives its debut performance, including works by Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Singleton, and Tonia Ko.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.