Last Thursday, at the Alpha Gallery on Newbury Street, the new music group Equilibrium inaugurated the Hyman Bloom Project, an ongoing endeavor to bring to light the work of the late abstract painter Hyman Bloom through collaboration with local composers. In this first concert, six chamber pieces were performed amid the paintings that inspired the music. This program will be repeated at the gallery on Thursday, May 24 at 8 pm.
The first piece on the program, a flute and violin duet written by Christopher Coughlin, was a response to “Leg,” one of Bloom’s viscerally beautiful morgue paintings. Despite the extremity of typical reactions to images of severed limbs, Coughlin’s piece was rather contemplative and placid and given a sensitive but reserved performance by Bethanne Walker (flute) and Chia-Li Ho (violin). Throughout this somber piece of dark harmonies and the occasional biting dissonance, the flute and violin, by and large worked in tandem throughout the piece, trading phrases and coming together to finish each other’s gestures.
Patrick Greene’s Still Life, 1985, an accompaniment to the painting of the same name, was similarly contemplative, but with a bit more contrast to its ebb and flow. The eponymous painting was one of several in which Bloom rendered vases amassed on a draped table with a bold Technicolor palate and an evocative depiction of light glinting off the golden surfaces. This clarinet, viola, and cello trio began with all three instruments in a single note unison passage that soon broke out into short micro melodies energetically led by the clarinetist Kevin Price. As the piece progressed, longer passages of somber melody and harmony emerged, again with the clarinet in the lead and the strings setting the foundation. Eventually, violist Zoe Kemmerling and cellist Christopher Homick took center stage with a beautifully played elegiac melody. The coda then collapsed back into a harmonically reduced and texturally sparse section reminiscent of the introductory passages. This coda however, was less of a denouement and more of a revelation, like the moment when light breaks into a room, revealing what was previously hidden.
Jason Huffman’s string trio Christmas Tree is the first of series of works that reflects Bloom’s series of paintings on that subject. Like Bloom’s works, Huffman’s music illuminates a somber stillness activated by haloes of color and pointed brushstrokes. The trio begins with a wispy sul ponticello before an assertive gestures opens up the full tone of the ensemble. Lyrical impulses give each instrument its moment in the spotlight, culminating in a very active section marked by hocketting. Sul ponticello resumes in the final section of the piece, broken up by striking pizzicatos.
Bert von Herck’s Swims the Water was the only piece whose companion painting was not on display in the Alpha Gallery, and given van Herck’s playful music, I was curious to see a perhaps more light-hearted side of Bloom’s work. This duet for bass clarinet and cello was built around a propulsive, syncopated rhythm that was contrasted and combined with short melodies and ornamental flourishes. Clarinetist Price and cellist Christopher Homick went at it as if they were involved in a marvelous game, rendering the dissonances and the surprising growling sounds in the bass clarinet completely delightful.
Leg and Skull by Aaron Jay Myers used a combination of triangle, Chinese gongs, temple bowls, woodblocks, and chimes to evoke the beauty and shock of another one of Bloom’s morgue paintings. Although the piece had only the briefest moments of discernible melody, percussionist Masako Kunimoto skillfully rendered the deft transitions between timbres and the ebb and flow of dynamics to bring out the organic development of the piece and its contrasting ethereal and confrontational sounds.
The concert concluded with Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s Still Life, 2009 for violin, clarinet, and percussion, an homage to Hyman Bloom’s last still-life painting. Salkind-Pearl’s piece maintains the solemnity of much of the music on the program, but with a deliberateness of timbre and pacing that is all his own. In the initial section of the piece, simple lines are exquisitely rendered over a drone that gets passed among the instruments. The second section increases the rhythmic density and broadens the registral scope while maintaining the initial texture. As the piece comes to its close, the percussion remains active while the violin and clarinet return to the slower pace of the beginning, bringing both the trio and the concert as a whole to a darkly peaceful close.