Alias opens its season with feral fowls, fabulous fiddle music and a masterpiece or two

aliasCompared with some of its recent recitals, Alias Chamber Ensemble’s concert Tuesday night at Turner Hall seemed like an oldies show. The newest work on the program, R. Murray Schafer’s Wild Bird, was composed in 1999. For a new-music powerhouse like Alias, a 13-year-old piece seems like an antiquity. And let’s not even talk about Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Sonatae unarum fidium, published in 1664. Can we say paleolithic?

But never mind. Alias’ greatest strength is its ability to make any music seem brand new. And since Alias often programs unjustly neglected masterpieces, the music actually is new, at least to those of us who are hearing it for the first time.

Everything about Alias’ Tuesday night program was strong – the show was one big highlight – so we may as well just start at the beginning. The concert opened with Schafer’s Wild Bird, an aptly named duo arranged for violin and harp. Schafer, a contemporary Canadian composer, wrote the piece for a friend who was in the habit of dying his hair a vivid orange. Here and there, the piece boasted a few violin trills and harp tremolos to imply birdsong. But the work primarily featured a wild rush of disparate, dissonant and energetic melodies – appropriate material to suggest a delightfully eccentric personality. Violinist Alison Gooding and harpist Licia Jaskunas played this difficult music with gusto.

Richard Danielpour’s Portraits for mezzo soprano, clarinet, violin, cello and piano was a very different animal. Composed in 1998, this elegant song cycle sets to music four of Maya Angelou’s poems about archetypal women during different historic periods. For the most part, these women do not control their own destinies. “The Chinese Bride” can barely walk with her bound feet. “The War Widow” lives amidst the death and destruction of the American Civil War. “The Plains Woman” has lost her Native American husband on a hunt. Only in the final song does “The Afro-American Woman” assert her independence.

To his credit, Danielpour avoids caricature. He makes no attempt to transform the clarinet into a Native American flute in “The Plains Women.” There are no obvious Asian modalities in “The Chinese Bride.” Rather, his music is lush, expressive and neo-Romantic, and it is always idiomatically scored for voice and ensemble.

The cycle certainly received a worthy performance. Mezzo-soprano Lea Maitlen sang every song with a silky tone and with unfailing sensitivity to the meaning of the words. Her voice trembled when she sang of the frightened children in “The War Widow.” It shimmered with bright optimism in “The Chinese Bride.” I, for one, was taken with her interpretation of “The Afro-American Woman,” which combined operatic refinement with jazzy swing. The ensemble – clarinetist Lee Levine, violinist Zeneba Bowers, cellist Matt Walker and pianist Melissa Rose – provided her with consistently sensitive and nuanced accompaniment.

In terms of sonic color, imagination and sheer virtuosity, Bowers’ performance of Schmelzer’s early Baroque sonata was surely the evening’s climax.  Bowers and her companions – theorbo virtuoso Francis Perry and cellist Walker – gave the piece an authentic reading. Bowers and Walker played with gut strings and Baroque bows. Perry and Walker, for their parts, vamped convincingly in their basso ostinato accompaniment. But it was Bowers who stole the show. She played her difficult part with polish, precision and complete spontaneity – at times, I was convinced she was making the music up on the spot. Her final cascade of arpeggios sparkled like fireworks.

Alias concluded the program with a bona fide masterpiece – Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1. Britten composed this work in 1941, when he was just 28 years old, but clearly he was already a mature compositional master. His command of string technique was absolute, and in this quartet he seemingly probed every conceivable string sound, from percussive pizzicatos to wild harmonics.

Alias’ quartet – violinists Gooding and Jessica Blackwell, violist Christopher Farrell and cellist Christopher Stenstrom – played this music from the heart. They brought tension and drama to the fast sections. They played the slow third movement, surely the heart of the piece, with aching emotion.

Tuesday’s concert marked the beginning of a busy fall for Alias. It performs again in just two weeks, when it collaborates with Nashville Opera in David Lang’s terrific contemporary opera The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. If that performance is half as good as the Britten, it should be unforgettable.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.