With an eclectic program of 20th– and 21st century works from turn-of-the-century quirks to modern giants, Radius, Longy’s new-music ensemble-in-residence, gave their season finale Saturday night in a warm Pickman Hall. The concert, oddly titled “Orbit” (the term seemed to have little specifically to do the pieces), was performed by the core Radius Ensemble musicians with collaboration at the end by tango dancers Hernan Brizuela and Anita Flejter, to make the music more accessible while providing a satisfying close.
Edwin Schulhoff’s Concertino opened the evening on a decidedly elusive foot. Sarah Brady on flute, Noriko Futagami on viola, and Randall Zigler on bass muscled their way through the difficult piece. The first movement, Andante con moto, combined folk-style melodies striving against the strange balance of the ensemble choice. Futagami and Zigler held firm, lending the support Brady needed to sing out on, mostly in the meaty low register of the flute. Brady deserves much praise, achieving enough power on the soft low range to speak against the stronger viola and bass while remaining lyrical and flowing. The second movement clashed with its title, Furiant: Allegro furioso, in conveying collected reserve, again probably owing to choice of instruments. Zigler’s extensive use of col lengo battuto did provide the percussive edge the movement needed. Schulhoff’s complement made it much more satisfying when he did let go and let the instruments rage, angsty and angry though not overblown. Movement three, Andante, was based on a Czech langsam. The instruments’ dark timbres ruled the ensemble in lovely contrast with the brighter second movement. Futagami especially was fluid and lyrical in the main melody, playing to the strengths of the viola’s throaty and gravelly sound with soft attacks. The final movement, Rondino: Allegro gaio, imitated street musicians with strident open fifths and simulation of a hammered dulcimer. Futagami and her instrument got a workout here with right- and lefthand alternating pizzicatos. The technique is exceedingly difficult to pull off, but for Futagami it was like standard arco playing. Brady held the movement together with flute lyricism.
The Schulhoff was probably the best way to open such an eclectic concert: a strange piece informed by different influences mashed together with strong playing.
Stephen Hartke based his tableau for the piano quartet King of the Sun on the Spanish painter Joan Miró, starting with his “Dutch interior” and composing the other movements from there. Gabriela Diaz on violin, Futagami, Miriam Bolkosky on cello, and Sarah Bob on piano picked up where the paintings left off. “Personages in the night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails” opened with a motoric, repetitious pattern that developed from the piano to be contrasted by the strings. Dissonant yet not biting despite being based on tone clusters, the slow harmonic burn of the movement kept the energy going for its short time frame. Though the movement change was not clear, “Dutch interior” started with extended solos in the strings, particularly from Bolkosky, who sounded mournful and strong in the same breath. All the strings, punctuated by pointillistic material in the piano, had a chance to sing out over the texture, proving how soloistic the instruments in a string trio could actually be. “Dancer listening to the organ in a Gothic cathedral” opened with crashing piano gestures set against muted, choral-like strings, reversing the juxtaposition from the previous movement. Direct, assertive, and unerring, Bob smashed the keys, marking the way for the other performers, and Bolkosky once again played with reserved power in her solo. A short Interlude felt like an interpolated sketch, neither providing forward momentum into the next movement nor dragging the previous one down; it diverted, gone as fast as it came. “The flames of the sun make the desert flowers hysterical” drove the motor the work desperately needed by this point, moving with Stravinsky-like energy. The piano did most of the heavy lifting, leading the ensemble with full-bodied chords as the string trio traded artificial harmonics around in a circle. It was the closest the ensemble came to being a true piano quartet, not piano with string trio. “Personages and birds rejoicing at the arrival of the night” made use of muted keyboard through application of putty on the strings. The effect was a notable aspect of this movement, as the decidedly tighter section essentially expanded upon ideas from the previous movement. The overall affect mimicked muted acoustic guitar, which was an unusual sound for the ensemble, one that should be utilized more on larger scales.
On Seven-Star-Shoes, performed by Brady, artistic director Jennifer Montbach on oboe, Eran Egozy on clarinet, Anne Howard on horn, and Adrian Morejon on bassoon, disappointed in comparison. Julia Wolfe composed this woodwind quintet around a poem (which the performers could not seem to find), implying an extended color palette especially given the quintet’s heterogenous sound world. Instead, Wolfe mostly blended the instruments into one timbre and held it out throughout, save for a few moments when piccolo and bass clarinet came into the picture to liven matters up. In those moments Wolfe’s ideas and sonic choice shone, breaking away from any singular timbre. These complaints do not take away from the performers, who engendered most of the interest in the work.
Not much need be said about Astor Piazzolla. His compositions are luscious, sultry, haunting; Serie del Angel, the story of the death and resurrection of an angel through the sounds of the tango, is no exception. This occasion, the ensemble played a transcription for bassoon and string quintet, performed by Morejon on bassoon, violins Diaz and Angelia Cho, viola Futagami, cello Bolkosky, and bass Zigler; Morejon explained that a trend in the 1990s had performers transcribe tangos for bassoon. The transcription clearly showed why, the buzzy timbre of the instrument fitting well with the melodic material. To this music Brizeula and Flejter danced the tango and the milonga (a dance that developed into the tango from the habañero), providing a needed connection back to why the music was composed. This reviewer is unable to comment on the dancing, but what they did looked complicated and difficult—seriously advanced moves performed throughout made to look easy.
Whether or not the concert title connected, Radius Ensemble gave the audience a wide smattering of styles of modern music. The accessibility helped, with the hall packed for the event. Whatever they are doing, they need to do more of it.
Ian Wiese is a doctoral candidate in composition at NEC, studying with Michael Gandolfi.