Review: ALIAS Chamber Ensemble Breaks Its Own Record With Three World Premieres

By John Pitcher for the Nashville Scene

Nashville’s ALIAS Chamber Ensemble postponed its winter concert last February due to dangerous, icy road conditions. “We were concerned about the safety of our audience,” said ALIAS cellist Matt Walker. “Oh, and Vanderbilt University locked the doors to the concert hall.”

On Wednesday night at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, ALIAS finally got around to presenting its winter concert. It was worth the wait. The program included no fewer than three world premiere performances, a record even for this ensemble, which presents new works as a matter of routine. All of the music was American, and four of the composers were from Nashville.

The terrific young Nashville-based composer Daniel Elder was on hand for the world premiere of hisThe Ties Eternal for soprano, strings and percussion. Elder has a gift for setting words to music — no less an ensemble than the Westminster Choir College recorded his recent choral album, titled The Heart’s Reflection. 

His new piece sets to music Walt Whitman’s well-known poem about venturing forth into the unknown, “that inaccessible land” of time, space and eternity. Elder’s music is both sensuous (due to his idiomatic string writing) and sparkling (due to his equally satisfying percussion writing). Soprano Lea Maitlen sang every syllable with a voice that was both plush and powerful. Violinists Zeneba Bowers and Louise Morrison, cellists Walker and Sari Reist, and percussionist Rich Graber provided sensitive accompaniment.

Veteran composer Conni Ellisor is well-known to Nashville’s music community — earlier this season the Nashville Symphony premiered The Bass Whisperer, a concerto that Ellisor co-wrote with electric bass phenom Victor Wooten. Ellisor is also an accomplished violinist, and on Wednesday she joined Bowers, Walker and violist Melinda Whitley for the world premiere of her new string quartet, Awake at Night. 

Ellisor wrote in her program note that she is a “longtime insomniac.” Awake at Night depicts, in sound, the composer’s many sleepless evenings. Long, sliding notes on the violins and the drone of the cello suggest an insomniac who is beginning to drift off. But wait. A series of skittish, restless figurations soon enter, rousing the insomniac back to consciousness, her mind racing. Ellisor’s score is lyrical, beautifully arranged for strings and filled from beginning to end with joy and humor. ALIAS’ musicians clearly enjoyed this music, since they gave it a lively performance.

Christopher Farrell, a violist with the Nashville Symphony and longtime ALIAS musician, supplied the third world premiere of the evening, his String Quartet No. 2. This four-movement quartet was the most conventional work on the program. Still, Farrell found new things to say with the old forms. His second-movement scherzo, for instance, was far more gentle and songful than your typical fast-moving scherzo. The third-movement elegy was soulful but never maudlin. The outer movements were bright and buoyant. ALIAS — violinists Allison Gooding and Jeremy Williams, violist Farrell and cellist Reist — gave the work an effervescent reading.

Walker was the fourth Nashville composer represented on the program, and on Wednesday his piece Wood for violin and marimba received its Music City premiere. The work opens with a series of neo-Baroque-like sequences for violin, with marimba providing bright accompaniment. Eventually, violin and marimba break into an elaborate blues number that explores the entire circle of fifths, which, as Walker wrote in his program note, was a feat “fellow composition geeks might find clever.” The husband-and-wife duo of Eric Willie (marimba) and Rebecca Willie (violin) gave the piece a memorable account, playing with color and panache.

Wednesday’s All-American program included two rarities. Aaron Copland’s Elegies for violin and viola was written in 1932 and was never published (the piece was recently discovered in the Boston Symphony music library). The work is interesting because Copland incorporated some of this music into the slow movement of his Third Symphony. On Wednesday, Bowers and Farrell played this lost gem with clarity and sensitivity.

Leonard Bernstein wrote his Piano Trio in 1937, when he was still a college student at Harvard, when he was still searching for his voice. The piece is more clever than original — Bernstein’s theatrical style was in its embryonic stages. But his music is unfailingly lyrical, and pianist Melissa Rose, violinist Jessica Blackwell and cellist Christopher Stenstrom played every note with gusto.