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Playing Contemporary Music As You Like It


Although Radius Ensemble typically mixes eras in its concerts, placing Beethoven or Mozart alongside world premieres, its “Vistas” on Sunday afternoon at Longy surveyed four works written within the last few decades, from Morton Gould’s Benny’s Gig, (Gould mostly wrote the tribute to Benny Goodman in 1962, but added a final movement in 1979) through text- and vista- inspired items from 2013 and this very year. The order of march, placing 2, 3, 4, then 7 players onstage, required a fair amount of reset time, but that is typical for new music concerts.

Though it certainly ain’t Sweet Georgia Brown, as clarinetist Eran Egozy quoted dedicatee Goodman as having told Gould, we can nevertheless postulate Benny’s Gig as a jazz chart cum two-part invention. Egozy’s mordant interactions with the very outgoing double bassist Anthony d’Amico spanned seven short movements alternating upbeat with downbeat. The independent (shall we call them contrapuntal?) lines could sound variously bawdy, wry, and sunny. Gould gave us a Carmen Miranda calypso, plenty of swing, learned modern jazz riffs—in short, plenty of variety. The last movement, Jaunty, reached a finger-snapping intensity as Georgia Brown’s ghost hovered. After lots of descending scales in the bass, Egozy wailed a warm refrain to close.

The ever warm and pastoral Elena Ruehr began her long association with Radius in 2015 with Quetzal Garden; following on its appearance on the group’s “Fresh Paint” CD, it has “ … become something of an anthem for them.” According to annotator Matthew Heck:

The commission for Walk Through a Strange Landscape materialized at a party celebrating Radius’s 20th anniversary. Ruehr envisioned it as a companion to Two Rhapsodies by the turn-of-the-[20th] century German-American composer Charles Martin Loeffler, penned it for the same forces—oboe, viola, and piano—and dedicated it to oboist Georges Longy.

The opening chords in the piano, assume Glassian figurations as the viola and oboe trade melodic thoughts. This returns at the end of the varied extended (ABBA?) single movement. Jennifer Montbach, oboe; Noriko Futagami, viola; and Sarah Bob, piano made the alterations of calm, pathos, muted frenzy into a fine evocation of Ruehr’s observation of nature. Did we hear a hovering cock sparrow with twisted head and gimlet eyes? Were there native American incantations in this musical realm? What landscape feature did the piano’s scales in octaves suggest? Through a Strange Landscape ended in a quiet place.

Heck tells us that the “Boston-based composer-flutist Christina J. George’s (b. 1996) favorite sound in the world is “the cry of the loon reverberating around a quiet cove.” George’s own poem about breakup forms something of a motto for her work, The Last Words winner of the 2020 Pappalardo Composition Competition.”

Elena Ruehr and Christina J. George (Sam Brewer photo)

And George wrote:

“This piece is, in effect, a breakup song. Grief is by no means linear, but at some point – amidst the hope, the anger, the pain, and the heartache – there is a gradual unwinding that leaves you someplace very far away from where you started. May the unanswered questions become unimaginable blessings.”

Sometimes, my heart fills with hope that I’ll have the last word,
that you’ll remember how you left me, bleeding,
and rush forth in anguish, begging for my forgiveness.\
I hope for this
so that I can leave you
like you left me –
drowning in the carefully crafted words, choking on the apologies,
clinging to what is not yours to hold.

But the funny thing about endings, they never do come to a point.
And there never is a last word,
only an empty kiss
and an empty promise and a closed car door
that will not open for you again.

If her words evoke Dehmel’s “Verklärte Nacht,” the soundworld Eran Egozy, clarinet; Yumi Okada, violin; Anthony d’Amico, bass; and Sarah Bob, piano, produced felt more spacious than morbidly intense. In Movement I, “Remember how you left me,” interludes struggle and intwine. Jazzy and spiky episodes yield to bluesy slides. The opening struggle returns at the close. Mysteriously distanced and restrained sul ponticello from the bass leaves us waiting for something to happen in the second movement, “Clinging to.” Ultimately the clarinet wails a plea answered by the strings as diminishing harmonics fades out. The third movement blows an Empty Kiss, as the ensemble works itself into a calamity. Melancholy acceptance ensues. The parts rarely harmonize as the partners go their own ways and the clarinet weeps its condolence.

Kevin Puts’s Seven Seascapes take us back to the inspiration of nature while also responding to poetry. Each of the seven short movements takes its title from a stanza of poetry. The work begins with a chordal invocation and ends with a related benediction in language richly triadic. If any key firmly took hold, one could imagine it modulating and morphing to another almost immediately. Mark DeVoto quantifies my enjoyment of Puts’s strains of harmony thus:

I noticed prominent triadic use, almost entirely of major triads, either in close-position piano, parallel chords (no. 1, returning cyclically at the end of no. 7), or widely spaced between different instruments (no. 6, also quoted again (I think) in no. 7), or in sprawling piano arpeggios no. 4.  Contrasted with whirling chromatic scales and glisses here and there (nos. 5 and 6), piano in major 10ths for a fragrant breeze (no. 3), and a Poulenc-like sound in no. 7.  All in all, a quite attractive work.

The very individualistic movements employ wonderfully sonic tools to set distinctive scenes. We get fluttering flute over concentrated bass drone, Debussyian wateriness in the piano proceeds as the horn intones something like “Over the Rainbow.” Chromatic downward slides first in the strings and then in the piano take us into a maelstrom. The horn calls for help and harmony prevails. Towards the end, the eloquent solo flute meanders as a survivor floating on a lifeboat in the Sargasso Sea. The piano announces the closing benediction—a return to the opening invocation. 

The ensemble playing Puts (Sam Brewer photo)

The estimable full ensemble of Sarah Brady, flute; Anne Howarth, horn; Yumi Okada, violin; Noriko Futagami, viola; Miriam Bolkosky, cello; Anthony d’Amico, bass; and Sarah Bob, piano gave Seven Seascapes a bon voyage. We would like to hear it again, especially, if Puts takes our advice and expands it into a song cycle.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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