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Wheeler & Chen Yi Keep Company with Beethoven


Scott Wheeler accepts kudos,. (Michael J. Lutch photo)
Scott Wheeler accepts kudos. (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Hope is a mutable passion and noble pursuit: for poet Rabindranath Tagore it was a “thing with feathers”, for Robert Frost a paper-birch tree. At Shalin Liu Center on Saturday, Radius Ensemble’s typically riveting chamber concert, arriving on the cusp of spring after a hard winter, radiated such bright aspiration and dignity through ardent statements by composers from China, the USA, and Germany.

Chen Yi, a pioneering Chinese-American composer and positive presence, weaves Chinese folk themes into brilliantly reconceived Western forms. Her wind quintet Feng (“breath” or “folk song style”) counterpoises two movements—serene meditation opposite whirling rondo—of shining contrast and meticulous if ever—surprising detail. Brief ruminative solos for Sarah Brady’s flute and Eran Egozy’s clarinet wove between serpentine unisons. Margaret Phillips’ bassoon set off a tart, off—kilter ostinato that rose in vibrant ensemble and peaked shrill and spiky, scribing acerbic dissonances and dazzling whirlagigs. Exuberance was tempered with restraint: tutti gathered only at peaks, as when Anne Howarth’s French horn intoned a rising motif recalling Rite of Spring. With sunlight glancing through the big bay window, the quintet seemed poised on a white horizon between sea and azure sky.

Just 30 years old in 1800, brashly confident after his Haydn studies, on his A-game amidst Viennese high society, Beethoven wrote his E-flat Septet in good cheer, abrim with melody over six movements that spin out longer than half his symphonies. Radius played the robust bookend movements with generous high spirits, Gabriella Diaz’ violin sparking the ensemble —here with elegant flourishes, there with a rustic ländler—and time flew by like the clouds sailing over the Granite Pier. In between, Egozy passed a pretty cantabile strain to Diaz, another thread to Phillips, and the strings a third back to the reeds; an affable minuet tossed themes and kernels from strings to winds; a brisk theme and variations, and a jolly scherzo built around a jaunty fox-to-hounds horn call.

The centerpiece was the world premiere of a chamber version of Scott Wheeler’s 200 Dreams From Captivity, for voice, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, a meditation on friendship and freedom in the wake of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The libretto was the fruit of a collaboration between people separated by geography and culture but not spirit: Chinese poet Wang Dan, who wrote the poems during imprisonment for treason; Shalin Liu, Taiwanese founder of her eponymous Performance Center, who translated the poems into English; and noted Boston composer Wheeler who set seven of them. In her announcement, Radius’ artistic director and oboist Jennifer Montbach introduced Liu and a personal friend of poet Wang Dan who read the absent poet’s heartfelt note of cheer and welcome.

Baritone Aaron Engebreth gave an intimate, nuanced reading to the settings, imbedded with their images of nature, linked to loss and regret: “Each [red maple/diary] leaf is one fading memory.” “Snow…flying and falling on our hearts.” “You are the seed of that [light purple] flower.” The understated settings drew lightly on both traditions: Miriam Bolkosky’s cello emulated the whine of an erhu, Sarah Bob gently struck staccato piano octaves to evoke twinkling stars, and Aaron Trant mined a spare battery for sere touches of snare drum, maracas, woodblock, small brass gongs. The less-is-more approach induced a wistful longing and shaded emotions, mirrored eerily by shadow-play on the wood—slatted balcony and limestone tracery; so we witnesses were transported when Engebreth finally intoned, “In the hours before dusk and dawn, [we] taste the rewards of time, the joy of hope.”

Radius Ensemble with Aaron Engebreth (Michael J. Lutch photo)
Radius Ensemble with Aaron Engebreth at Shalin Liu Center (Michael J. Lutch photo)
Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine (Chicago) and The New York City Jazz Record, and about wine for Beverage Business (Boston); he teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music and occasionally lectures on jazz history at Boston University.

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