I could feel the excitement in the air as the audience eagerly awaited the beginning of the Grammy-nominated ALIAS Chamber Ensemble’s first concert of the season on Tuesday. Four living American composers (including three women) and a practitioner of the Italian Baroque were represented: Caroline Shaw, Kenji Bunch, Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, Jennifer Higdon and Margaret Brouwer. All things considered, this concert was not a disappointment.
The first piece on the program was a brand new arrangement of Shaw’s “Cantico delle creature” performed by mezzo soprano Lea Maitlen, violinist Zeneba Bowers, pianist Melissa Rose and baroque cellist Matt Walker. This setting of a poem by St. Francis of Assisi may be characterized by its text-painting and evocation of Gregorian chant, both of which were crystalized in this deeply sensitive and moving performance.
Bunch’s Suite for Viola and Piano (1998) is considerably earthier. Violist Chris Farrell, accompanied by Rose, executed every double-stop pizzicato with a sharpshooter’s accuracy and every dizzying run with uninhibited gusto. Perhaps a bit too uninhibited in the finale, in which Farrell’s death-defying choice of tempo had the side effect of making runs in the instrument’s lower range resemble the sound of a braying camel.
After the intermission, harpsichordist Roger Wiesmeyer joined Bowers (on baroque violin) and Walker for a pair of sonatas written in the 1660s by Pandolfi Mealli. Bowers experienced difficulty in keeping her instrument in tune throughout the performance: an issue that could’ve been resolved by opting to use her modern instrument instead. But I digress. This was an inspired performance that demonstrated the trio’s fine ability to capture the emotional nuances of music separated from us by more than three centuries.
Violinists Alison Gooding and Jeremy Williams, Farrell and cellist Sari Reist brought the audience back to the future with a pair of works for string quartet: Higdon’s An Exaltation of Larks (2005) and Brouwer’s Demeter Prelude (1997). The former’s titular image is made vivid by the composer’s splendid harmonic and instrumentation choices, although the effect becomes a tad wearisome as the work proceeds with little variation (sure beats the sound of a braying camel, though). Brouwer’s work is meant to depict Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, and her search for her daughter Persephone, kidnapped by Hades. Like An Exaltation of Larks, the Demeter Prelude loses some of its steam by the end, but until then, one may relish a sort of jagged virtuosity that links the work to Bunch’s similarly exuberant Suite for Viola and Piano.
ALIAS’s stated dedications to “an innovative repertoire” and “artistic excellence” were indisputably evident in this concert. The ensemble’s other stated dedication — “a desire to give back to the community” — was manifest in the concert being a benefit for the nonprofit group Better Decisions.