Music Review: ALIAS opens its season with some delightful surprises and a few tough nuts

11/13/2014 by John Pitcher

An ALIAS Chamber Ensemble program is a lot like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: Once inside the concert hall, you never know what you’re going to get.

As I perused ALIAS’ program on Wednesday night at the Blair School of Music’s Turner Recital Hall, I felt as if I were sitting on a bus bench somewhere, peeking into one of Gump’s packages of surprises. Items on the menu included, among other things, the sonic equivalents of dark chocolate (Ernest Bloch’s Three Nocturnes), creamy caramel (Johannes Schmelzer’s Sonata for violin and continuo) and nuts (Kevin Volans’ Hunting, Gathering). The selections were not all to my taste, but they were excellently prepared and for the most part well presented.

The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu found his musical voice after listening to French chansons during World War II. So it came as no surprise that his trio “and then I knew twas wind” often sounded like Debussy. Arranged for harp, flute and viola, the work reminds me of Japanese silk paintings – the music is colorful, delicate and exacting in detail. This is not Western goal-oriented music. The musicians – harpist Licia Jaskunas, flutist Kate Ladner and violist Chris Farrell – spend the better part of 12 minutes focusing on timbre and texture. Perhaps for that reason the interpretation often seemed a bit detached and unemotional. Needless to say, ALIAS’ outstanding musicians played with upmost clarity, balance and precision.

People tend to think of ALIAS as a contemporary music ensemble, an understandable misconception given the large number of world premieres that appear on its programs. But ALIAS musicians perform whatever they want, and on Wednesday the ensemble’s artistic director and violinist Zeneba Bowers was indulging her antiquarian interest in historic performance. Anyone who thinks of period-instrument music as dry has obviously never heard Bowers perform it. On Wednesday, she played Schmelzer’s Sonata with a welcome mix of passion and pizzazz, making this arcane music sound like a melodically rich and emotional improvisation. Theorbo player Francis Perry and cellist Matt Walker provided equally expressive accompaniment.

The most accessible piece on Wednesday’s program was Bloch’s Three Nocturnes, and pianist Melissa Rose, violinist Christina McGann and cellist Chris Stenstrom played this music from the heart. They brought out all of the first nocturne’s dark sensuousness, and they played the final nocturne with the right amount of storminess. I was most taken with the melting lyricism with which Stenstrom and McGann played the second nocturne.

South African composer Kevin Volans wrote his Hunting, Gathering in 1987 for the Kronos Quartet, and I believe Wednesday’s performance was ALIAS’ first go at it. The piece consists of 23 different fragments, written in different keys and three distinct sections, which explore musical ideas from Zimbabwe, Mali, Ethiopia, South Africa, among others. Rhythm seemed to be the main focus of this music. Volans also made use of string effects – harmonics, sul ponticello, pizzicato – that created an opaque and percussive sound not always associated with the traditional string quartet.

This music reminded me of a vast African savanna, with the trees (or in this case musical climaxes) being so few and far between as to make the sonic landscape seem featureless. This was music that was always in the moment, never going anywhere in particular, an IMAX soundtrack in search of a documentary.

Volans indicated in his program note that he conceived of the work’s three sections as being part of one movement, or journey, so the piece should always be played in its entirety. Big mistake. There’s just not enough in this piece to sustain one’s interest for three long sections. ALIAS’ quartet – violinist Jeremy Williams and Louise Morrison, violist Dan Reinker and cellist Sari Reist – played with color and vibrancy for about two-thirds of the piece and then seemed to run out of steam. My eyes glazed over around the half-way mark.

I had the opposite reaction to Steven Snowden’s wonderful Appalachian Polaroids for string quartet. This piece found its inspiration in photographer Shelby Lee Adams’ pictures of rural Appalachia. The piece opens with a field recording of Sheila Kay Adams singing the folk song “Black is the Color of Asheville, North Carolina.” The quartet – violinist Stephen Miahky and Bowers, violist McGann and cellist Walker – comes in softly and almost imperceptibly beneath the recording and then takes off, playing with the sort of color, vitality and lyrical appeal one might expect from an Appalachian string combo. Before you know it, this all-too-brief piece comes to an end.

Proceeds from Wednesday’s concert went to the Elephant Sanctuary. Now that’s something to trumpet about.