A rough start and bracing finale to Da Capo Chamber Players’ fete of three composers

Thu Nov 29, 2018 at 1:18 pm
The Da Capo Chamber Players performed music of Musgrave, Harbison and Tower Wednesday night at Merkin Hall.

The Da Capo Chamber Players performed music of Musgrave, Harbison and Tower Wednesday night at Merkin Hall.

The Da Capo Chamber Players, a group approaching fifty years of promoting contemporary music, devoted their Wednesday program to celebrating three composer anniversaries. Their concert at the Kaufman Music Center, honoring 80 years of Joan Tower and John Harbison, and 90 of Thea Musgrave, was a compelling evening with an admittedly rocky start.

Musgrave’s Sunrise (2009), which led off the program, shows some interesting sonic ideas—opening with all alto sounds, she meshes together viola (Curtis Macomber, who doubled on violin for the rest of the program), alto flute (Patricia Spencer), and harp (guest artist Susan Jolles), gradually lightening as she brings in higher registers and more activity. The intended effect, though, of bright clarity growing out of murky warmth, was unfortunately muted by iffy intonation and half-way dynamics.

John Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing (2004), a Da Capo commission, was even rougher, a set of ten popular and traditional songs recast for a “Pierrot ensemble”— flute, clarinet, violin, piano, and cello. The first, “Amazing Grace,” is an oddly jumbled take on that standard hymn, with the flute playing a harshly accented version of the melody, echoed by harmonics on the violin while the piano tolls ominously in the background. The Da Capo players seemed to be struggling just to keep the precisely calibrated disorder from descending into general confusion. The most successful songs were the ones in which Harbison gave himself the most leeway in reimagining the music, such as a playfully skewed “Aura Lee” that breaks the phrases apart until they are just barely recognizable, and a spry baroque dance of “We Shall Overcome.”

In stark contrast, the second half of Wednesday’s program was bracing from top to bottom: again, a Musgrave piece led off, her Chamber Concerto No. 2 (1966). In this longer work it was not always so easy to follow the train of thought as in Sunset, yet the angular intersections of its competing voices was thrilling. Where Musgrave doesn’t put instrumental lines in conflict with each other, her contrasts take a softer tone, as when impassioned statements from the cello find an answer in the quiet warmth of the bass clarinet (Marianne Gythfeldt).

The program finished with three pieces by Joan Tower, one of the founding members of Da Capo. The final item was her Looking Back (2018), another Da Capo commission, in which Tower writes clear, vivid parts for each voice, hitting on an interesting idea and then exploring it in depth: a dancing triplet figure becomes a dizzying swirl, and quick scales in one instrument are challenged in echo by another. Especially compelling was her writing for cello, giving the instrument heroic solos that Chris Gross executed brilliantly.

The highlight of the evening was Très Lent (1994), a work for cello and piano. Here, too, Gross showed extraordinary virtuosity, playing with precision and searing tone. The melodic lines Tower writes for the cello are richly constructed—she operates for a while in a tight space, moving slowly upward and building to unbearable intensity before suddenly escaping down into another register, while the piano lingers in the background on glassy broken chords and arpeggios. 

A contemplative piece in a thoughtful interpretation, Très Lent could easily have stood on its own, but Tower complemented it with the brief Wild Run (2018), whose blazing triplet figure in the piano’s opening bars was more than a little reminiscent of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig. The gritty scamper was given a taut performance by Gross and the pianist Steve Beck.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS