Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Saturday's Alias concert

Alias gave their latest concert Saturday night. The usual sort of mix, perhaps with a higher obscurity quotient.

Listening to Zeneba Bowers play baroque is a real pleasure because of her absolute lack of stiffness. She plays fast parts fleetly, and draws out her lines expressively. She plays this music in a way that does not try to ignore the intervening musical events of Brahms, jazz, and even gypsy violin playing. On this bill she and a small ensemble of cello, harpsichord, and on one piece contrabass, played 17th century pieces by Bertali and Pandolfi-Mealli. I believe Alias likes to try different things with the instrumentation on baroque music, and this time it was adding the contrabass. I would need to check how unusual it is to use the low orchestral bass in this setting, but to my ears the deep boom of the instrument’s bottom was a surprise, but pleasurable. It also allowed Matt Walker playing cello to switch between the continuo and solo lines. The second piece, the Sonata “La Cesta” by Pandolfi-Mealli, had an odd structure, with rubato fantasia sections dominating. And some of the melodic lines were strained and strange. All of which seemed like it would make this a hard piece to put together beyond finding phrasing moment-to-moment and phrase-by-phrase

The baroque pieces came late in the program. I’m switching everything around, which is consistent with my pick in the Scene where I jumped off from completely the wrong idea of the program order.

Before the baroque pieces came the best performance of the night, Michael Samis playing an elegy for solo cello by John Tavener called Thrinos or Threnos (the Alias program had the latter spelling, but I’ve found the former on a listing of his works and on recordings). Tavener is a British convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, and writes in an intensely mystical, modal style. I hadn’t listened to his music before writing this pick, but I liked it. He can pull off this musical mysticism. Samis’ performance was thrilling in its silences. It seems like he held them a little longer, which creates the tension of waiting and of approaching letting the performance fall into pieces but pulling up before it does, and he tended well to the ends of notes and beginnings. There were a very small number of miniscule infelicities of execution, which one noticed only because this piece is so simple as to make it unforgiving. It requires a virtuosity of concentration.

The program contained pieces that were not really the best examples of their genre, like the Pandolfi-Mealli. Hearing Chausson’s Chanson Perpetuelle live made it much clearer to me how sturdy and four-square it is, in contrast to Debussy who was active about the same time. The group also played a septet for winds, strings, and piano by Stravinsky that Bowers described as rarely heard, and you could see why. It was Stravinsky, so there were interesting aspects, like the use of baroque forms, the timbres of the families of instruments in the ensemble, and a modified serialism based on an 8-note cell that ends up sounding more polytonal than atonal. However, the melodies themselves were awkward, which is often my reaction to Stravinsky’s later works (i.e., after the heavily Russian works of his first period).

The concert had two premieres. One was a scherzo for String Quartet by a young violinist and composer currently based in Florida, Piotr Szewczyk. It was based on the half-diminished scale, and seemed a lot like Bartok. I was thinking Bartok’s 4th quartet used the same scale, but that’s not quite right. The best part of Szewczyk’s piece was a con sordino interlude before the last rush of scherzo material.

The other premiere was a piece for viola, cello, and jazz trio by Matt Walker. It took a theme from the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, gave it swing phrasing and used that as the basis for a series of mostly written sections that included solos. The piece stayed in a consistently pre-bop swing style. Think Duke Ellington’s version of the Nutcracker Suite. And in a way it didn’t sound that different from Hot Club of Cowtown. Walker had a jazz-based piece on Alias’s concert last Spring, and while this one worked better, I’m not convinced this is fertile territory for him. His jazz writing is pretty simplistic. Solos for viola and cello were stiff, although Walker was better playing his own material than the violist. The solos by the jazz trio were stronger – they sounded improvised. Which could be because they were improvised, or because those musicians (David Huntsinger, Jack Jezzro, and Christopher Norton) have a better idea how to make the music sound improvised. One of the problems with this piece is that it wasn’t really a jazz-classical hybrid, but more of a swing revival work, only without the energy of improvisation. The idea of using the Beethoven theme as a jazz tune is fun, but I’d rather hear Hot Club of Cowtown or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra do it. Turning jazz into a piece of classical chamber music doesn’t improve it. Walker obviously loves jazz, and I hope he is getting a chance to play the music in its usual settings. I know he plays guitar, but I hope he is trying it on cello – there’s good precedents for it going back to Fred Katz in the Chico Hamilton Quintet and Ray Brown and leading up to guys like Erik Friedlander and Fred Lonberg-Holm.

Next Alias concert is Sunday, May 7 at Vanderbilt/Blair School.

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