An evening with the Radius Ensemble is quite like no other. “… violence of the cities; more specifically, the innocent young who are cut down in their home and on the streets” streamed live through Killian Hall on the MIT campus Saturday, March 5. It was Sarah Brady and her flute in “an expression of rage, of pain, and of disbelief; it is fear and terror; it is the inner city cry” as Jennifer Higdon says of her 1992 composition, rapid fire.
After seven or eight minutes, I, as I believe the other listeners did, lost track of time and everything around me as Sarah Brady astounded and confounded sensory perception. Higdon ramped up rather straightforward compositional techniques into non-stop flutings of every imaginable kind. High piercing shrillness shot out from low wisps I thought at first were the wind outside the hall. Dazzling music made even more dazzling by Brady, we all knew it. It has been a while since such spontaneous enthusiasm has burst forth from a Boston audience.
That happened after intermission. Before it, Joan Tower’s 1977 Amazon I, which, by contrast, plays down the resolute resonances from the five Radius musicians: “different kinds of associations with the river will be evident in the trill passages (ripples of water) and in the fast unison passage (which have the effect of a waterfall and water turbulence).” Brady, Eran Egozy, clarinet, and Miriam Bolkosky, cello, who are usually in on each other’s sound index, found Jae Young Cosmos Lee, violin, in on it, too. They produced vintage twentieth-century chamber harmony that enticed and puzzled, as it should — top-notch all the way. Pianist Sarah Bob flooded the riverscape with apt understanding of movement and demonstrative passion for a music she so evidently relishes. Unlike Higdon’s tour-de-force that only became stronger as it raged on, Tower’s music bogged down here and there when, it seemed, her focus on constructing sounds fell prey to an all-too-comfortable rhythmic steadiness.
That state of rhythm, though, when taken on by Alan Hovhaness, of Watertown, Massachusetts, played into his idea of music-making covering many decades. Before the raging river and city music, Radius gave a 99-and-44-one hundredth percent pure performance to his Divertimento that dates from 1949, this Ivory Soap-like music, which tooled along in seven small movements. It was a standup selection and standout performance. Pleasant, angst-free music fell below the radar screen; it was the cultured organ-like blending of the four distinct colors from oboist Jennifer Montbach, clarinetist, Eran Egozy, bassoonist Elah Grandel, and hornist Anne Howarth making all the big blips.
Quoting from the enjoyably informative program notes of Kathryn Bacasmot, “A terrible experience occurred when [Hovhaness] was a student at the Berkshire Music Center (now Tanglewood Music Center): his works were unceremoniously dismissed by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.” Was it not Hovahness who, according to The Wall Street Journal, was the only American composer in the 1970s able to survive off the royalties from his prolific output?
Attacked and dismissed over and again, the music of Hovhaness nevertheless is still with us.
Not unlike their other programs, Radius broke with the twentieth century to round the evening out with an earlier, larger work, Dvorák’s String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op.7. Again, comparable to the concert I attended last year, Radius strings figured out some of the moves but not nearly enough of them, and sounding under-rehearsed, they noticeably fell short of the benchmarks already set.