Alias caps its season with two world premieres

May 23, 2013
by John Pitcher of Arts Nash

Anyone who thinks that classical music is strictly an antiquarian affair has obviously never attended an Alias Chamber Ensemble concert.

On Wednesday night, Alias was at the Blair School of Music’s Turner Hall, presenting a program consisting largely of 21st-century music. Cellist Matt Walker was quick to point out one of this performance’s most salient features.
“I am really happy about this concert because all of the composers on our program are still alive,” said Walker, who found the “alive” part of that equation to be especially appealing, since he was both one of the composers and was also – by all accounts – “still alive.”

Walker’s contribution to the proceedings was a piece called Yo-Yo Joe, a cello duet written last year for Yo-Yo Ma and Toronto Symphony principal cellist Joe Johnson. The piece opens with short, bluesy music and quickly segues into a section filled with vibrant Latin jazz dance rhythms.

Ma and Johnson played a shortened, “Minute Waltz” version of this piece as an encore in Toronto last season. On Wednesday, Walker and cellist Sari DeLeon-Reist presented the world premiere of the work in its “Five-Minute Fandango” incarnation, playing the music with energy, good humor and joy.

Wednesday’s concert also featured the world premiere of Chris Farrell’s String Quartet No. 1 “Three Portraits.” The portraits in this case were the work’s three movements, each probing the genre of the quartet from a different perspective. The first movement seemed almost Brahmsian – the flowing, lyrical music built up layers of rhythmic and harmonic intensity over time. The slow second movement, surely the heart of the piece, was a meditative song without words, while the finale was a vibrant dance that had something of a folksy feel.

The players – the composer on viola, violinists Alison Gooding and Jeremy Williams and DeLeon-Reist – gave the music a memorable premiere, tossing melodies back and forth with chatty spontaneity, playing every note with sensitivity and style. The success of the piece suggests Farrell should consider becoming one of Alias’ regular house composers.

Gooding and harpist Licia Jaskunas have teamed up at several recent Alias concerts to present duets for violin and harp. On Wednesday they played an especially appealing piece called Night Time by Sebastian Currier. This was a substantial, five-movement suite brimming with sensuous violin melodies and sparkling harp accompaniment. Gooding and Jaskunas played with polish and deep feeling.

Michael Daugherty’s Diamond in the Rough for violin, viola and percussion was the evening’s most unusual offering. The work’s title seemed odd, given that Daugherty wrote the piece as a tribute for Mozart – far from being rough, Mozart was a precision-cut jewel. But that didn’t make Daugherty’s music any less of a gem.

The first movement, “Magic,” glistened with bright glockenspiel notes that paid homage to The Magic Flute. The second movement, “Fifty-Five Minutes Past Midnight,” alluded to the mysterious hour of Mozart’s death and featured a percussionist playing, among other things, tuned water glasses. “Wig Dance,” the finale, included music that seemed almost bluegrassy. Violinist Zeneba Bowers, violist Chris Farrell and percussionist Chris Norton gave the music its due, playing with color, nuance and imagination.

Bowers, Alias’ founding artistic director, seemingly aspires to be the k.d. lang of classical violin – she likes to play barefoot. So she appeared shoeless in both the Daugherty and the concert’s final selection, Peter Schickele’s Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

Schickele is best known for his comic character P.D.Q. Bach, but he also composes bona-fide concert music. His clarinet quartet is among his most legit and well-made pieces. The work’s four movements overflowed with melodies that were alternately bluesy and folksy. Dauntingly difficult passages abounded, but the Alias quartet – clarinetist Lee Levine, pianist Melissa Rose, Bowers and Walker – tossed off this music with precision and panache. The performance brought the concert, a benefit for the Nashville nonprofit group Moves and Grooves, to an appropriately joyous conclusion.

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