Present (Chamber) Music in morning light
Present Music gives us new music at its most intimate.
Winter sunlight, filtering from the south into the library of Andy Nunemaker’s East Side mansion Friday morning, cast just the right aura over the wispy harmonics of Andrew Norman’s “Sabina.” That glow around Eric Segntiz (violin), Margot Schwartz (viola) and Adrien Zitoun (cello), as they played within a bay of windows, might have helped them simulate the charged hush within the walls of an old Roman church that inspired the composer.
Harmonics — an effect achieved by touching a string lightly at nodal points — loomed large in this string-oriented program. Ben Johnston immersed two of his “O Waly Waly” Variations in harmonics, and at the end the piece dissolved into them. Schwartz and Segnitz (violins), Zitoun and violist Erin Pipal played Johnston’s generously harmonized treatment of the folk song (also known as “The Water Is Wide”) with a easy, pliant flow. It enhanced the dreamy appeal of this piece, which the composer and Segnitz adapted from the original setting for saxophone quartet.
The first two works benefited greatly from the small, acoustically live venue. A two-movement excerpt from Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind would have worked in a sports arena. This is big music. Clarinetist William Helmers joined the string quartet for this vibrant evocation of Jewish mystical feeling. The Prelude, a series of isolated deep-breathing, non-vibrato string chords peppered with B-flat clarinet wails, has an epic quality. The second movement contrasts intense lamentations — even more poignant wailing from an E-flat clarinet — with wild, cathartic klezmer dances. Helmers and Schwartz handled the cackling klezmer rave-ups with great panache. But after all that, this piece, too, disappeared into the ether of harmonics — and a couple of muttered punchlines from the cello. You leave this Jewish funeral smiling.
Ted Hearne’s Vessels was another flower unlikely to bloom beyond this hothouse environment. Barely audible fluttering and groaning from Segnitz’s violin and Pipal’s viola opened the piece. If pianist Michael Mizrahi did anything through the first half of it, he held down keys to allow the piano strings to vibrate sympathetically with the violin and viola. (I thought I heard some harmonic afterglow, but maybe it was the psychological effect of the room’s light.) After a surprisingly volcanic climax in the strings, Mizrahi took up an odd little ostinato figure of notes so muted — by either hand or device — that the piano barely had pitch. That figure lent the piece some rhythmic momentum as it came down from the mountain to end abruptly with a murmur from the lower region of the keyboard.
Brahms inspired Timothy Andres’ piano quartet, I Found It By the Sea. You can hear the influence, but not in the veiled quotations from Brahms’ Opus 25 quintet. (If it weren’t for Andres’ program notes, I wouldn’t have heard them.) I Found It By the Sea, in continuous variation form, sounds nothing like Brahms, but it has in common with Brahms dense, yearning harmony and an ineffable, melancholy nostalgia. In keeping with the theme of the day, it ends with a harmonic scan of the overtone series.
All six players joined in the nervous drive of Nico Muhly’s Motion. The music advances largely in explosive phrases in irregular lengths separated by irregular periods of rest. As the piece goes on, a Renaissance-vintage tune by Orlando Gibbons threads into the piece. You could hear it grow through the herky-jerky rush and halt, and that growth was fascinating.
Miraculously, no one jumped the gun in those awkward rests — what good players these are! Beyond just getting it right, they created a powerful sense of eagerness to run, of force unreasonably restrained, and thus maintained compelling momentum even when no one was making a sound.
Present Music will repeat this In the Chamber program at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, in the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, at The Hamilton, an elegant bar near Brady Street. For tickets and further details, visit the Present Music website.