Music Review: Alias performs the music of America’s top women composers

aliasIt must have been ladies night at the Alias Chamber Ensemble.

Nashville’s premier chamber group was at Turner Recital Hall on Tuesday evening, presenting an adventurous program that included the music of three contemporary American women composers. Kenji Bunch’s dauntingly difficult Suite for Viola and Piano was also on the bill, along with a pair of Pandolfi Mealli’s Violin Sonatas.

The program opened with the premiere of Caroline Shaw’s Cantico della creature. This lyrically appealing work sets to music one of the oldest known poems in the Italian language, a 13th-century sacred hymn to nature attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Shaw suggested the provenance and antiquity of the verse in a couple of ways. First, she wrote simple lyrical lines – often with multiple syllables sung on just one note – to give her music a certain medieval, chant-like quality. She also added a part for Baroque cello, enhancing the music’s period flavor.

Mezzo-soprano Lea Maitlen’s performance on Tuesday struck me as perhaps more appropriate for an opera house than a cathedral. Her rendition was remarkable for its soaring high notes and Verdiesque vibrato, which made Shaw’s simple lyrical lines seem more like opera recitative than chant. Needless to say, her performance was deeply felt, and one couldn’t help but admire her plush, feathery sound. Pianist Melissa Rose, cellist Matt Walker and violinist Zeneba Bowers accompanied with color and sensitivity.

The most impressive performance of the evening came next, when violist Chris Farrell and Rose took on Bunch’s dauntingly difficult Suite for Viola and Piano. Farrell and Rose performed selections from this suite last spring as part of Nashville Ballet’s production of Macbeth. The piece was so difficult to learn that Farrell and Rose decided they had to play it one more time – they had to justify all that initial practicing. Their hard work paid off on Tuesday.

Farrell’s performance had everything – sensitivity, nuance, a beautiful amber tone and an immaculate sense of the melodic line. Bunch is himself a viola virtuoso of the first rank, and he included just about everything he knows about the instrument in his five-movement suite. Farrell nailed every challenge. He played the rhythmically crazy pizzicato patterns in the scherzo with vitality, and he tossed off the cadenza’s difficult double stops and the finale’s perpetual motion figures with seeming effortlessness. Rose was every bit as impressive, playing her difficult part with power and panache.

Pandolfi Mealli’s early Baroque  Violin’s Sonatas Op. 3, Nos. 2 and 6  call on the violinist to play with both improvisational spontaneity and refined virtuosic polish. Bowers had no trouble conquering these musical challenges. Her temperamental Baroque violin, however, bedeviled her throughout the performance, with the impertinent instrument refusing to remain in tune. Bowers preserved and delivered performances that were colorful and expressive. Walker and harpsichordist Roger Wiesmeyer (a Nashville Symphony English horn player who is proficient on more instruments than Paul McCartney) provided rhythmically vital accompaniment.

Alias concluded with string quartets by two top contemporary American Women composers. Jennifer Higdon’s “An Exaltation of Larks,” originally composed for the all-female Lark String Quartet, is like a study in luminosity. This bright, pulsating and oscillating music seemed to flicker, like candlelight. Violinists Alison Gooding and Jeremy Williams, violist Farrell and cellist Sari Reist played it with energy and feeling. The foursome played Margaret Brouwer’s “Demeter Prelude” – a short, colorful piece inspired by the goddess Demeter’s confrontation with Zeus and Hades – with gusto.

Tuesday’s concert was a benefit for the nonprofit group Better Decisions. Over the years, Alias has raised more than $33,000 for its nonprofit partners, a statistic that’s even more impressive than the group’s long list of world premieres (17 to date). Clearly, Alias is a gift that keeps on giving.

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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.