Alias Chamber Ensemble is in the mood for love.
Judging from its terrific spring concert on Wednesday night at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, the group is also in the groove. Nashville’s adventurous chamber group premiered no fewer than three new works during its two-and-a-half hour performance at Turner Recital Hall. That’s likely a record even for this ensemble, which is accustomed to presenting world premieres.
Two of the new works – Paul Moravec’s Amorisms and Sacred Love Songs (both performed with the splendid vocalists of Portara Ensemble) – explored various aspects of love. Alias also premiered composer (and Alias cellist) Matt Walker’s Grooves for string quartet. All three of these works received memorable premieres.
Amorisms, which closed the concert, set to music five of Shakespeare’s aphorisms about love. Moravec wrote the piece as dance music (Portara and Alias will perform it with Nashville Ballet later this month), so rhythm and timbre, not Shakespeare’s words, are emphasized.
The opening pieces – “Love is a Spirit” from Venus and Adonis and “How Quick and Fresh” from Twelfth Night – were rhythmically vital and richly layered, sounding at times like music from an oratorio. “The Course of True Love” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was slower and more sensuous, while “Sweet Lovers” (As You Like It) and “When Love Speaks” (Love’s Labours Lost) were both filled with shimmering, overlapping vocal lines.
Portara Ensemble, under the expert direction of Shreyas Patel, sang every syllable with nuance, sensitivity and a beautifully blended sound. Clarinetist Lee Levine, violinists Alison Gooding and Zeneba Bowers, violist Christopher Farrell and cellist Sari Reist were all spot on, providing accompaniment that was colorful and energetic.
Sacred Love Songs, which closed the first half, set to music Biblical texts along with the meditation “A Prayer of St. Francis.” The piece often mixed sparkling, luminous vocal lines with rhythmically complex and dissonant instrumental accompaniment. Portara sang everything – from unadorned a cappella melodies to complex vocal polyphony – with clarity and precision. A quartet of Alias musicians – Gooding, Bowers, Farrell and Reist – performed with flexibility and feeling. The composer was in the hall on Wednesday, and he acknowledged the enthusiastic applause after both premieres.
Matt Walker’s Grooves for string quartet proved to be a real crowd pleaser. The piece was filled with long, bluesy passages that sounded remarkably spontaneous, as if the musicians were engaged in extended flights of improvisational fancy. A recurring cello ostinato provided the rhythmic groove, a recognizable pattern that the other musicians could adopt at the end of their far-flung melodic digressions. This was complex music, but the players – violinists Bowers and Jeremy Williams, violist Farrell and Walker – played with polish and panache, and in the process they won some of the noisiest and happiest applause of the evening.
Wednesday’s concert featured one other 21st-century piece, Douglas Hill’s A Set of Songs and Dances (2006), arranged for French horn, clarinet, marimba and bass. This was a very easygoing piece with a jazzy feel, boasting movements with such titles as “Quadrille with Bebop” and “Romp with Rumba.” The music was expertly and idiomatically arranged for the instruments, though I found some of the titles to be misleading – I could hear no romp in the cool, sensuous Latin rhythms of “Romp with Rumba.” But I could find no fault with the musicians – French horn player Leslie Norton, clarinetist Levine, marimba player Christopher Norton and bassist Tim Pearson – who gave the piece a thoughtful and intensely musical performance.
The concert opened with an arrangement of Ravel’s Sonatine for flute, cello and harp. I must confess a preference for this piece in its original form as a piano solo, which is more sparkling and virtuosic than the arrangement played on Alias’ program. That said, the performers – flutist Philip Dikeman, cellist Christopher Stenstrom and harpist Licia Jaskunas – gave a reading that was remarkably pastoral and mellifluous. It established just the right mood for the rest of the evening.