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Radius @ 20: Visions in Boston

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The culmination of Radius Ensemble’s 20th season this past Saturday at Longy (where it is ensemble in residence) seemed to focus on locality, and within that spirit, the important intimate connections within the ensemble and with the composers; all but Beethoven attended. Guided by introductory comments from the performers, the audience gained personal perspectives on each work.

Boston Conservatory’s Composition Chair Jonathan Bailey Holland delicately scored Alchemy, for alto flute and cello. Holland has been commissioned by Radius on five occasions and the bond between him and the ensemble comes through. Sarah Brady and Miriam Bolkosky, engaged in the vivid and almost literal analogy of the four elements in the first movement, transforming from wispy “air” tones and harmonics to “earthy” sounds of bowing the back of the cello, to the rushing “water” al la Perpetua mobile. In the following movement, Alloy, shifting harmonic hues never strayed too far from its tempered state; this pushed the instruments into a role-reversal, with the flute providing the dark richness and the cello brightly floating above, concluding with open consonances.

In a change of pace, Radius brought a pleasant, charming, yet Romanticized rendition of the uniquely configured Piano Trio, WoO 37 by Beethoven, for flute, bassoon, and piano. Published nearly 60 years after his death, it was probably conceived for the Von Westerholt family, with the father an amateur bassoonist, a flutist son, and young daughter, who was then studying piano with the 15-year-old composer.  It seemed to have been programmed due to its unique instrumentation. The weightless lyricism and unison statements harken to his role model, Mozart, whom he wished to study with at this point but never had the chance. In the second and third movements, bassoonist Adrian Morejon showed his adaptability, with lightness in the minor and a commanding, yet sensitive presence through the variations. While the demanding piano gestures lacked the crisp clarity warranted by this era and balance problems occurred between the winds, the audience received this contrasting work with enthusiastically.

After intermission, two pieces (collectively 13 movements) provided snapshots of musical thought, whether harkening to the past, presenting enigmatic colors, or connecting with the individuals of the ensemble. With Harbison’s 80th birthday celebration seeming to continue until his 81st, Boston has gratefully been able to experience the widest breadth of his catalogue. His Six American Painters reminded me of a recent performance of his Songs America Loves to Sing by Dinosaur Annex (Feb. 9th, 2019). Both stem from celebrating harmonic and folk tradition within America, whether explicitly or not, and seem to connote the native compositional lineage, through Billings, Chadwick, and ultimately Copland. In this specific work, he celebrates American realism—and also specifically luminism of the Hudson River School—and visual narratives of landscape, rural-ness, and the pastorale country, with movements associated with American artists that include Bingam, Eakins, Heade, Inness, Hoffman, and Diebenkorn. While originally scored for flute, violin, viola, and cello, in this second version for oboe quartet, the plaintive ideals of the similarly orchestrated Vaughn-Williams quartet have a shadowed presence, as do the British realist painters of those times. With the balanced, attentive cooperation of the string trio and Jennifer Montbach’s floating oboe melodies, each movement functioned as a complete and vibrant depiction in response to the visual medium. The concert title, “Vision,” made its meanings relevant.

Radius Ensemble (file photo)

While Harbison originally based each movement on a specific painting, he transformed his plan to encapsulate a more holistic sense of each artist, rather than responding to a specific picture, which might provide too rigid of musical comprehension; unfortunately, we heard each movement with a projection of the paintings Harbison first observed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For these movements, the visual analog foregrounded and overrode the musical experience. The notes would have provided sufficient pictorial representations.

This evening progressed in a generative manner, marked by growth in both the number of movements throughout the night (2, 3, 6, and 7) and more experientially by an expansion of the ensemble (2, 3, 4, and 9). Seven Pines, in its world premiere, consummately concluded the concert and the 20th season with the entire roster. Laurie San Martin, the commissioned composer, also has a long history with the group: she performed clarinet on the first concert of the first season while a PhD student at Brandeis University. Her intimate knowledge of this group came out as she treated each instrumental voice distinctly, and in combing textures, seemed guided by the personalities, with movements devoted to flute and string, winds, horns and strings, and solo piano. Fascinating details included the warm clarinet solo of Eran in the opening movement, modern techniques flickered in-and-out as fireflies, and dream-like atmospheres. The maximal orchestration of the final movement encapsulating a joyous energy, signified the care with which the group presents the music it loves by composers it holds dear and in high esteem.

David Stevens is an admin in MIT’s Music and Theater Arts Department by day, a woodwind educator by afternoon, and saxophonist and theorist by night. His website is here.

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