Music Review: The air is sweet in Alias Chamber Ensemble’s performance of Moravec’s ‘Tempest Fantasy’

aliasA veritable sonic tempest roared through the Blair School of Music’s Turner Recital Hall on Tuesday night. The proximate cause of the storm was the Alias Chamber Ensemble, which performed American composer Paul Moravec’s half-hour long, Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy. As you might expect from a work inspired by a sorcerer, the performance was utterly spellbinding.

Moravec has described this five-movement magnum opus as an extended meditation on his favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest. The first three movements get their titles, not to mention their musical personalities, from the play’s three main characters – Ariel, Prospero and Caliban.  The fourth movement, “Sweet Airs,” is named for Caliban’s unexpectedly gentle third-act speech; the finale, a wild “Fantasia,” is a virtuosic flight of fancy that serves as the emotional summation of the piece.

On Tuesday, a quartet of Alias musicians – clarinetist Lee Levine, violinist Zeneba Bowers, cellist Matt Walker and pianist Melissa Rose – gave Moravec’s masterpiece a breathtaking reading. Moravec composed the piece a decade ago for his friend, the violinist Maria Bachmann, so it’s hardly surprising that the violin gets some of the fantasy’s most beautiful lines. Bowers excelled in this music, playing the fleet-fingered passagework of “Ariel” with agility and the long-breathed lines of “Sweet Airs” with sensuousness and an utterly melting tone.

Levine played her soaring melodies with elegance and unfailing sweetness. She switched to bass clarinet in “Caliban” to suggest the creature’s lumbering, ferocious nature. Amazingly, she played this unwieldy instrument with remarkable grace. Rose performed her difficult part with sweep and drama; Walker, for his part, provided steady, lyrical support.

Alias will be showering attention on Moravec this May, performing two other works –Amorisms and Sacred Love Songs – in collaboration with the Portara Ensemble and Nashville Ballet. These performances anticipate a forthcoming all-Moravec CD, which Alias and Portara will release later this year on the Delos label.

Tuesday’s concert opened with another 21st-century piece, Piotr Szewczyk’s Twisted Dances. This was a tongue-in-cheek sort of work that playfully manipulated a variety of traditional dance forms. The opening “Polytonal Polka” made use of polychords, while the second-movement “12-tone-al Waltz” ingeniously disguised a 12-tone row in the left-hand part of the piano without disturbing the work’s overall C-minor tonality.

There was rhythmic sleight-of-hand in “Jig with a Twist” that created the illusion that the music was getting faster. The “Effin” in the final movement, “Effin Tarantella,” probably referred to the giant, Henry Cowell-like tone clusters that pianist Melissa Rose pounded out with fists and forearms.

Lasting maybe 10 minutes, Twisted Dances struck me as an essentially breezy and frivolous piece. But it was also extremely fun, and a quartet of Alias musicians – oboist Roger Wiesmeyer, violinist Louise Morrison, cellist Sari Reist and Rose – made the most of it, playing every note with energy and élan.

Alias’ program included two staples of the repertoire. A quartet of musicians – violinists Alison Gooding and Jeremy Williams, violist Christopher Farrell and cellist Christopher Stenstrom – gave a masterful rendition of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 10 in A-flat major. They played throughout with rhythmic vitality, a beautifully blended sound and a keen sense of the lyrical line.

Debussy’s gorgeous Trio for flute, viola and harp is like the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun writ small. It is a masterpiece in its own right and includes some of the most colorful, evocative and atmospheric music in the entire chamber repertoire. Flutist Kathryn Ladner, Farrell and harpist Licia Jaskunas gave a memorable performance, playing this music with the immediacy and spontaneity of an improvisation. According to Alias’ program notes, Debussy once remarked about the piece, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about it.” He didn’t need to worry, since the Alias Chamber Ensemble left no emotion unexplored.

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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.