A Mutable Romp 

Daring chamber ensemble Alias to tackle the Alleged Dances of ironist John Adams

Daring chamber ensemble Alias to tackle the Alleged Dances of ironist John Adams

Alias

8 p.m. Feb. 19 at Turner Concert Hall, Blair School of Music

In the few years since they've formed, the chamber ensemble Alias have reached the point where each of their concerts has become an event of sorts, a chance for local audiences to hear at least one major work by a contemporary composer for the first time. The highlight of this Saturday's concert at the Blair School of Music's Turner Hall will be the Nashville premiere of John's Book of Alleged Dances, a series of sketch-like pieces that romp among vernacular and post-classical styles of the last 50 years.

Originally written by the always startling ironist John Adams for a 1998 recording by the Kronos Quartet, the dances are "alleged," Adams claims, "because the steps for them have yet to be written." But rather than sounding like 11 dances in search of a choreographer, this work, like so many other postmodernist forays by Adams and his peers, encourages collaboration among composer, performer and audience alike. With Adams offering a quartet the option of shuffling his pieces in any order, their different emphases can pick up new meanings with each performance.

Not bound to their original sequence on the Kronos album, the "twisted hillbilly chromatics" of "Dogjam," for instance, do not have to precede the graceful tones of "Pavane: She's So Fine," a "song for a budding teenager" who quietly plays a favorite track in her room. The mixture of lyrical and dissonant passages, open and closed forms or rounded and fragmented pieces thus can undergo unpredictable permutations.

Some of the Alleged Dances obliquely mimic the rhythms and sound textures of raucous workers, streetcar journeys and department-store escalator rides; others more obviously, if perversely, take on the pulse of popular dance forms from earlier decades like the habanera and hanky-panky. While the audience pieces together the fluctuating dance steps, de-centered forms and cross-cultural juxtapositions of this work, they also can mull over the ways that the live quartet performance plays off and merges with the artfully mechanical sounds generated by a series of tape loops. Adapting John Cage's invention, the "prepared piano," Adams incorporates a "pygmy percussion orchestra" of rhythms produced by bits of hardware and stationery resting on struck piano strings.

As is also typical of Alias' concert agendas, Saturday's program will include a piece by an overlooked composer worthy of historical reconsideration. Emo Dohnányi's Sextet in C (1935) underscores fluent horn and clarinet melodies with dramatic string and piano assertions. Perhaps because his career followed Liszt's and overlapped with the more modernist Bartók's (whose talents he first recognized), Dohnányi's redirection of classical music in Hungary during the early to mid-20th century can be too easily forgotten. Like Brahms, one of his early influences, Dohnányi harnessed elements of late Romanticism into the more decorous forms of earlier classicism. At the same time, he developed a new, well-grounded tonal language and a compositional style of unified motifs that earned him the freedom to make adventurous chromatic flights.

Rounding out the concert will be Beethoven's Sonata in D for cello and piano and Gabrielli's Canon in D for two cellos, both works drawing upon one of Alias' riches, their three cellists.

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