Taking inspiration last night from its name, Radius Ensemble experimentally came down to the floor from the Longy stage and surrounded itself with watchers and listeners. The sightlines worked only for the denizens of front rows, but lots of those existed in the wraparound arrangement with stage seating.
Artistic director Jennifer Montbach welcomed us to the concluding concert in the ensemble’s 24th season with an interesting brief on how the short new pieces in the first half would illume Brahms’s Second String Quintet which would follow… after the very early intermission.
“Reverberations” from two fascinating contemporary pieces that explore the tragic and the uncanny condition our ears to hear the well-worn Brahms in new ways, through harmonic relationships linking three seemingly incompatible worlds…. Nested in Brahms’s opening bars are the juxtaposed harmonies that have followed us all evening—as melancholic distance in Nachtliederen, shocking interruption in fardanceCLOSE, and now as lilting dreamy depths in a gem of the standard chamber music repertoire.
Longy composer Alexandra du Bois’s greatest-hits compilation for wind quintet of her String Quartet No. 3: Night Songs (Nachtliederen), a Kronos commission from 2005, shaved about 20 minutes from the half-hour original, which paid tribute to:
Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish writer and Holocaust victim who left a collection of confessional diaries and letters that abound in hard-won philosophical and spiritual insights as they trace the terrible persecution of Jewish people in Amsterdam during the German occupation.
Both versions blend… traditional Jewish melodies and themes—marked by minor inflections in major scales, lowered second and sixth scale degrees, and augmented seconds—with a chilly harmonic landscape redolent of post-minimalism and contemporary film music.
Radius regulars Sarah Brady (flute), Jennifer Montbach (oboe), Rachael Elliott (bassoon), Anne Howarth (horn), and clarinetist Alexis Lanz substituting for Eran Egozy, traversed the elegiacal laughing and dancing through tears (as Brahms did so well) with handsome inflections, stylistic sensitivity to the contrasting elements, abundant ensemble warmth and gladdeningly mutual reinforcement of the underlying themes. In this wind version, though, the murderous realities of Jewish suffering seemed to be smoothed over in nostalgically tonic musings. These night songs floated by with more kinship to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Music of the Night” than to some expected holocaust nightmare.
The handout essay for Chaya Czernowin piano solo fardanceCLOSE takes longer to read than the four-minute piece does to hear, and the four minutes really include only two minutes of actual notes. We’re glad we heard pianist Sarah Bob charmingly explain the last otherwise interminable-seeming, relentlessly repeated (with differences) second half. “Think of a swimmer stroking and gasping for air,” she suggested. Mary Wallace Davidson wrote on these pages about how “Czernowin’s imagination is rich with new sounds. Silence is also an “instrument” in her music, playing a significant anticipatory role, as well as one of resolution, physically and psychologically.”
Montbach made the following observations on connections:
Particularly prominent here is C, the tonic of VI, a juxtaposition that recalls the same harmonic motion so prevalent in Nachtliederen. The cacophony returns transposed and collapses into greater dissonance, ceaselessly cycling “separated by longer and longer breaths…as if every repetition is one movement…as you swim. You dive into the water, you come up again for air, then dive again. As time goes on and tiredness sets in, you need more time for breathing—till you are not sure if you have the power to come up again…”
The work discoursed gestures including arpeggios, “tinkling,” triads, cluster chords, rolled low bass notes with the pedal down (like we all did on our pianos at home when we got tired of practicing), extremes of ffffs and pppps, but perhaps most importantly, it requiired extreme care about changes of meter, tempo and the spaces between notes. It takes longer to read the program notes for this piece than to hear its actual notes. And beyond that, the relentless (but with changes) swimming, stroking, breathing simulacrum which ensues from measure 39 on to the end at measure 75, put the damper down al fine on a treble cluster-chord/bass triad triple figure that gets repeated with precisely noted increasing spacings and fermatas for what amounts to more than half the piece. Doppler would have loved those shifts. We endured this unwinding alarm clock while imagining better ways of segueing between DuBois and Brahms.
Then what to say about Radius’s essaying Brahms’s immortal String Sextet no. 2? I’ve never heard a bad performance of this lustrous and so warmly human gem, but one rarely, and maybe never hears superlative takes from ad hoc groups either. We prefer to witness an established string quartet probe its demands and rewards with close friends and collaborators.
First violinist Gabriella Diaz warmed us up with an account of the composer’s breach of engagement with his immortal beloved Agathe, and how spelling her name musically connected Brahms with the “juxtaposed harmonies” of duBois and Czernowin. “Brahms even included the T by placing its closest musical equivalent D in harmony with the B (H). He constructed the succeeding music so that the AGA(T)HE cipher can also appear on its original pitches when the music is transposed in the recapitulation. The huge chromatic descent over tremolos at the end of the development section is also notable,” according to the Brahms Listening Guide.
Diaz sounded great. She always radiates warmth of tone and generosity of impulse. From our seat about five feet from the very outgoing and propulsive first violist Alexander Vavilov, the sextet often sounded like a duo concerto with those two. Of course we heard some great moments during the divine 40-minute span, such as the well delineated second-movement transition to and from the raucous Hungarian dance in three and the surrounding minor material in two.
Until the successfully executed fourth movement, though, ensemble accuracy and tuning failed to meet Radius’s historical standards. Finally, in that Poco Allegro, from the fleet tremolos onward, we could savor the refulgent Viennese lilt, irrepressible forward motion, and chocolatey Dobos torte-layering without reservation.