Classical review: From world premieres to cartoon music, Alias plays it all

aliasNashville’s Alias Chamber Ensemble has premiered more than a dozen works since its first concert in 2002.

On Saturday night at Turner Recital Hall, Alias was at it again, presenting the world premiere of West Coast composer John Marvin’s terrific new Sonata for Oboe and Piano. The ensemble also gave its first-ever performance of a delightfully cartoonish string quartet by New York City experimental composer John Zorn.

marvinMarvin composed his sonata for Alias oboist Roger Wiesmeyer, who presented the work Saturday with pianist Arunesh Nadgir. There was much to admire in Marvin’s work, but two features stood out.

First, the writing for oboe was extremely idiomatic. This should probably have come as no surprise, since Marvin is an accomplished oboist (in a recent phone interview he described himself as a “recovering oboe player”). Be that as it may, his beautiful melodies seemed to spin spontaneously from Wiesmeyer’s reed.

Second, the sonata as a whole was well-made and original. The opening movement, called “Arioso,” featured the sort of warm, flowing melodies that you might hear in late Brahms.

The sonata did not include a traditional slow movement. Marvin, however, did attach a slow and extended coda (or ending) to the first movement – introduced by a series of chorale-like Brahmsian chords – which seemed to function as a substitute Adagio.

Marvin was just as novel in the scherzo, abandoning the expected middle-section trio in favor of an energetic and prismatic development. The final “Theme and Tangents” movement alternated lyrical and dramatic sections. It ended sweetly and quietly, in the manner of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 109 (one of the composer’s favorite works).

rogeroboeMarvin couldn’t have hoped for a better performance. Wiesmeyer played with a sure technique and a beautifully reedy tone. His phrasing was gorgeous, and his sense of the work’s structure was absolute. Nadgir, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, was perhaps more impressive, if for no other reason than his part seemed to be harder. Marvin’s piano writing was full of difficult right-hand patterns and runs. Nadgir played all of it with polished perfection.

Given the Brahmsian flavor of the Marvin sonata, it seemed only fitting that Saturday’s program featured the old master’s String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51. The gripe one often hears about middle-period Brahms is that the music seems to be screaming of tragedy for no apparent reason at all. To make matters worse, his harmonies are as rich and caloric as German strudel (to paraphrase Washington Post critic Anne Midgette, Brahms’ music doesn’t let in much light).

These complaints seemed to evaporate on Saturday night. A quartet of Alias musicians – violinists Alison Gooding and Jessica Blackwell, violist Christ Farrell and cellist Christopher Stenstrom – dispensed with the tragedy. They focused on the lyrical side of Brahms, playing with immediacy, clarity and an expertly blended sound.

Aside from the Marvin premiere, Saturday’s program was notable primarily for Alias’ performance of Zorn’s Cat o’ Nine Tails for string quartet. This amazing 12-minute quartet came across as a kind of chance musical meeting between Karlheinz Stockhausen and Elmer Fudd.

The piece was a delightfully heretical (make that hysterical) non sequitur, with the musicians playing avant-garde sounding music one moment, and cartoony themes the next. Indeed, Zorn used the string quartet form in much the same way a mad scientist might use a blender. He threw everything into the mix, including old-timey bluegrass music and a quote from Paganini’s Caprice No. 17 in E-flat.

Alias’ quartet – violinists Zeneba Bowers and Gooding, violist Farrell and cellist Sari Reist – played this ridiculously difficult music with precision and, whenever possible, a straight face. Their performance elicited laughter in all the right places and an enthusiastic ovation at the end.

Bowers noted that Alias performed Henry Cowell’s Homage to Iran at its very first concert in 2002. Bowers, Wiesmeyer (this time on piano) and percussionist Christopher Norton revisited the piece on Saturday night. Composed in 1959, Homage to Iran struck me as faux-Persian. Often, the violin melodies sounded more Gypsy-like than Iranian. Similarly, there was more of Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song” than of Scheherazade in many of the piano figurations.

Nevertheless, Bowers, Wiesmeyer and Norton played this music with polish and color. It was an enchanting rendition that tied Alias’ present to its past while bringing its program full circle.

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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.


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