Da Capo closes season with a showcase of rising composers

Mon Jun 12, 2023 at 1:07 pm
Matthew Ricketts’s Enclosed Position was performed by Da Capo Chamber Players Sunday at the Tenri Cultural Institute. Photo: Michael Kuhn

In musical scores, the instruction “Da capo” means literally “[take it] from the top,” i.e., repeat music you’ve played before. However, repeating itself is something the ensemble called the Da Capo Chamber Players has spent over a half century not doing.

Unless you count returning to present-day composers whose music you like to play, as the group’s cellist Chris Gross freely admitted doing in remarks during their concert titled “Young Composers Abound III,” Sunday night at the Tenri Cultural Institute.

To cap off its 51st season, Da Capo sampled that abundance and came up with five distinctive, one-movement chamber works composed in the mid-2010s—or rather, four chamber pieces and a piano solo—and gave each a richly imagined performance.

Three of the group’s five core players—violinist Curtis Macomber, clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt, and cellist Gross–performed Sunday, with guest artists filling in: flutist Roberta Michel for the on-leave Patricia Spencer, and Molly Morkoski on the piano bench instead of Steven Beck.

In chamber music, the piano tends to drive any ensemble it’s in, and on Sunday pianist Morkoski performed in every piece on the program, dipping into a broad palette of touches from aggressive to melting to bell-like to sparkling, as the music required.

Jessica Mays’s Look Again for the full Da Capo quintet describes (in the composer’s words) “a stuck place” brought on by an “encounter with grief.” Morkoski provided the sticking point, a single note near the middle of her keyboard that repeated obsessively as she and the others surged and ebbed in richly dissonant chords. Bursts of frenzied figuration evoked the ruminating mind trying to break free of grief in this vividly expressive piece.

Next, Morkoski was on her own in tackling the sonic challenges of Schaufe[r]nster II by Andile Khumalo. (The title is a play on two German words meaning “display window” and “look far away.”) In this solo piano work, Khumalo, who studied with the pioneering spectralist composer Tristan Murail and researched musical practices of the ama Xhosa people of his native Durban, South Africa, prioritized timbre over melody, rhythm, structure, or other traits of music.

That put Morkoski on her mettle, varying her physical approach to produce sounds from birdlike twitters to massive thumps. A later section was hard, bubbly and fleeting in rapid succession. Elsewhere, amid long silences, she held up a single note or a tiny flourish for inspection.

It finally all came together in what the composer described as a “superimposition of interacting musical layers [that] defines my approach to identity” as a cosmopolitan South African. It was also a tour de force de timbre for the resourceful pianist.

Cellist Gross joined Morkoski in Katherine Balch’s Prelude, a distinctly un-Brahmsian piece originally composed to precede a performance of Brahms’s Cello Sonata in E minor, Op. 38. Speaking of timbre, Brahms’s characteristic throaty grumble was nowhere to be heard in this dry, biting, rangy music that sometimes pushed the cello into wheezing harmonics and the piano into its uppermost treble.

On its own terms, however, Balch’s piece scored expressive points in moods from volcanic to light fantastic, while exploring nontraditional techniques such as meowing glissandos and whisper-bowing, and hand-muted notes in the piano. The composer did borrow one technique from Brahms: the undulating “bebung” produced by rapid crossing between two strings on the same pitch, heard just before the piece’s quiet close.

Timbre also played a large role in the concert’s brief second half, thanks in part to flutist Michel, who performed Wang Lu’s sparkly Trinket entirely on piccolo, and whose alto flute helped define the mellow sound of the closing work, Matthew Ricketts’s Enclosed Position.

But of course the pianist played a role there too, coming out before the Wang Lu performance to “prepare” the piano with objects on some of the strings that gave those notes a metallic sheen. In performance, violinist Macomber and cellist Gross joined the flutist and pianist to realize the composer’s image of a “tiny box” emitting mysterious sounds ranging from high flurries to deep cello groans, before winding down to the sound of sudden hard chords, “snap” pizzicatos, and one final piccolo squeal.

For his piece Enclosed Position, Ricketts provided a composer’s note longer than the other four notes combined, detailing how his composition—for the full Da Capo instrumentation plus viola–was inspired by certain plot points and harmonic resonances among three operas, Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges and the Manon operas of Massenet and Puccini.

With the presence of Michel’s husky-voiced alto flute and guest artist Lois Martin’s viola, one was mainly aware of being transported into a velvety Ravelian sound world, in which simple triad chords in the “closed position”—i.e., notes bunched together, playable by one small hand on the piano—floated up and down the scale, while the piano occasionally sprang into birdy chirps and trills that sounded more like Messiaen than Massenet.

The nearly vibratoless playing imparted a kind of innocence and purity to the scene, and set off some ear-tickling acoustic “beats” between the straight tones of the alto flute and the clarinet. The piano led the way into a more animated episode, but soon the fairy-tale scene returned, as the exquisitely-tuned winds led the final, dreamy diminuendo into silence.

The six players held that silence for a good half minute before breaking the spell and accepting the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

The Da Capo Chamber Players’ 2023-24 season will include concerts devoted to Elliott Carter, Stefan Wolpe, Iranian music, and emerging composers. Dates to be announced. dacapochamberplayers.org,

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