Radius Ensemble presented a comfortable program of old favorites and friendly newer works on May 5th at Longy’s Pickman Hall. The evening progressed in reverse chronological order from a commissioned premiere to Beethoven’s Sextet in E-flat Op. 81b for two horns and strings quartet . The players brought the extroverted, eager-to-please chamber pieces stylishly to life — no high-minded intellectual abstruseness here, just kinetic energy, sonorous pleasure, and fun.
The evening began with one of the fruits of Radius’s collaboration with Longy: the premiere of Master’s candidate Daniela DeMatos’s Trio for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon. According to her bio, DeMatos is a collaborative pianist as well as a composer; kudos to her for the largely successful use of an under-appreciated but promising combination (given that woodwind ensembles offer timbral possibilities foreign to pianists and string players alike). Bassoonist Adam Smith laid down a crooked groove over which oboist and artistic director Jennifer Montbach and clarinetist Eran Egozy engaged in sporadic dialogue. The complex rhythmic figures of the opening section, probably meant to interlock like puzzle pieces, were not quite as satisfying to the ear as they doubtless were on the page; however, the work rose to a viscerally satisfying level in sections of angular melody and closely dissonant countermelody that allowed Montbach and Egozy to display their instruments’ timbral possibilities to great effect. The piece was well structured overall; DeMatos’s scheme of introducing a new section with one prominent instrument, then sneaking the others in to form gradually tightening counterpoint, was effective. Oddly, the piece faltered in the occasional unified movements, an oddly shaped unison phrase near the end particularly catching my ear.
Flutist Sarah Brady introduced the following piece, Ned Rorem’s Bright Music of 1987, with unconcealed relish, citing its coincidence with the piecemeal “American sound” of her youth. Although it did not speak to my own ingrained experience in the same way, I too found in the piece an appealing, unpretentious quality hearkening back to a more innocent and less connotation-laden time. (Perhaps this raises meta-musical questions, though, about the intention of connoting innocence … is anything ever what it seems?) Bright Music — the title referring to these very qualities as well as an inherent extroversion — consisted of five character piece-like movements. “Fandango” opened with sharply executed unison flurries; although Brady, violinists Jae Young Cosmos Lee and Yoon Jung Yang, and cellist Miriam Bolkosky played with a crisp cohesion, pianist Sarah Bob tended to dominate through sheer volume in unison sections. The barrage of notes segued into a circus-like theme introduced by Bolkosky and picked up by the other players. Imitation, it transpired, turned out to be a dominant feature of the entire work. “Pierrot,” which the composer associated with certain of Picasso’s paintings, began with a lush violin duet and proceeded to fill my own mind with vague associations of romantic French films. “Dance-Song-Dance” began with tightly controlled perpetual motion from the precise Bob, complemented by equally alacritous pizzicati and zigzagging lines from the rest of the ensemble. The “Song” portion was a bit reminiscent of Copland, a bit of musical theater, two of the American influences that Brady addressed. “Another Dream” highlighted her remarkable ability to blend with and complement the strings’ sound, especially in a wonder-filled duet with Lee. The connotations of the final movement, “Chopin,” were lost on me due to its brevity, though the whirl of notes seemed to tie the piece in a small way back into the beginning.
After intermission came the flashy, flirty bonbon of the evening, Saint-Saëns’s Tarantella for flute, clarinet, and piano. Brady, Egozy, and Bob found just the right balance of substance and showmanship, class and camp. Egozy rightly drew attention to the communicative aspects of the piece, pointing out that the composer took the dance as inspiration for craft as well as legend. Brady and Egozy were completely in step — partners in sound, energy, and motion, with Bob providing the pincers goading them on. Like people who refuse to sacrifice fashion on their way to the gallows, the three maintained poise throughout every whirlwind run up to the ending flourish.
Radius made an interesting choice in ending with Beethoven’s Sextet in E-flat Op. 81b for 2 horns and string quartet, for the stark classical lines and open intervals contrasted rather brusquely with the notiness of the previous pieces. Perhaps in response to the sudden stretches of silence, the strings (joined by Peter Sulski on viola) seemed to attack the opening chords with just a touch more fervor than was supportable; however, their mutual sensitivity soon led them to form an excellent support system for the horns, Anne Howarth and Eli Epstein, who brought both beauty and accuracy to their lines. The pair’s sensitivity in the Adagio and their ability to blend while maintaining their own unique sounds were especially impressive; so too were the few bursts of rapidly arpeggiated fill-in material (!) in the last movement. The strings controlled the pacing very well, stirring things up in the first movement’s development, joyfully seizing the opportunity for playful antiphony in the rondo’s minor section, and receding into a well-blended tapestry when necessary. Casual elegance to offset the evening’s nonchalant pizzazz.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor. She currently also is the BMInt intern.