Combined Forces 

Alias—Nashville’s newest, most adventuresome classical group—perform another promising concert this weekend

Alias—Nashville’s newest, most adventuresome classical group—perform another promising concert this weekend


7:30 p.m. May 4

East Nashville Center for the Creative Arts, 108 Chapel Ave.

$12 door, $10 advance

All proceeds benefit the ENCCA scholarship fund

For information, call 228-9955

For many music enthusiasts, the uniquely thrilling power of finely crafted full orchestral sound is something they won’t happily do without. But other kinds of music have special powers too. Many musicians—perhaps all good ones—resist exclusivity: Playing different kinds of music helps them play everything better by helping them hear everything better.

About a year ago, some Nashville Symphony members, most of them recent additions, decided more or less spontaneously to offer some chamber music concerts on their own. They chose their programs by asking one another what each would like to play. Their selections were wonderfully eclectic, including rarely heard things by hall-of-fame composers along with some recent avant-gardists and work by their own members. Centering around violinist Zeneba Bowers—who calls herself spokesperson rather than leader—they dubbed themselves Alias, since professionally they all work under another name.

Alias have offered two concerts already, the first in the Belmont Mansion last fall, the second several months ago in a handsomely responsive small auditorium at the East Nashville Center for the Creative Arts (ENCCA). Both performances were informal and wonderfully diverse—more like open mic nights at the Bluebird Cafe than like formal classical events. In both, the level of musicianship was very high indeed—a level rarely heard anywhere—the musicians in duos, trios and quartets listening intently to one another, evidently delighting in what they were doing. Selections rarely or never heard before—by Steve Reich, by Alias cellist Matt Walker—were filled with freshness, sophistication and adventurous good spirits, delivered by performers including clarinetist Lee Levine and trumpeter Jeff Bailey.

Next Sunday evening, Alias, with help from a few non-symphony friends, promise their third outing, and the announced program bespeaks a full-bodied brew. On the card at ENCCA are two world premieres and one Nashville premiere, along with three works by well-known composers: an elegant Mozart quartet for flute, violin, viola and cello; a Bach concerto for oboe and violin; and “Fratres,” by the Estonian Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), music based on medieval plainsong in a setting for eight cellos, a haunting fusion of ancient and contemporary sonorities. If just these three standard selections were the program entire, it would reward close attention. But the promised premieres, all freshly imagined, are attractive too.

The Nashville premiere is “Chaconne,” composed for solo cello in 1992 by Matt Walker, who will perform it. The title is a baroque term for a set of variations based on a repeated figure, harmonic or melodic. Walker uses a kind of flamenco-flavored idiom grounded on a repeated descending bass line—8, flat 7, flat 6, 5—and finishes with a coda requiring a guitar-like pizzicato technique. This music will click listeners’ castanets.

Of the two world premieres, one was recently composed by Stephen Andrew Taylor for horn and marimba to commemorate the 25th wedding anniversary of hornist Leslie Norton and marimbist Chris Norton. Taking its title “What Falls Away Is Always” from a short poem by Theodore Roethke (d. 1963), the work aims to express (in the composer’s words) “a sense of timelessness, of the important things that stay constant in life.” The scoring exploits the special sonorities of two instruments very rarely heard together. The honorees are the performers.

The second world premiere comes right in the middle of the program, just before intermission. A marvelous axis, epitomizing the kind of openness and fresh vision Alias are bringing to Music City, this premiere is the String Quartet No. 1 (“The Garfield House”) by Sean Watkins, guitarist for the acoustic trio Nickel Creek. This quartet does for the classical genre what Nickel Creek have done for bluegrass with their self-titled debut CD, awarded a Grammy in 2001. Using the bluegrass palette of fiddle, guitar and mandolin, the CD transfigures the bluegrass sound into something that doesn’t fit any ready-made pigeonhole. Bill Monroe is clearly the music’s godfather, but the rhythms, harmonic sequences and melodic shapes are subtler and more complex than “classic” bluegrass, and the vocals are more oblique and meditative. All three young performers (the oldest is 25) are dazzling virtuosos. A bewitching musical mutation has occurred.

In his String Quartet No. 1, Watkins does a comparable thing with the classical genre masterfully brandished by Haydn and Mozart and Shostakovich: He transfigures that acoustic sound into something alloyed with the music that has made him famous. The title refers to his new beach house on the California coast where he grew up; the spacious, luminous and tranquil seascape that the house looks out on gave him the impetus for this music. The result is sophisticated, good-humored, sometimes playful, always brilliantly energetic, praisefully sane and undeniably “classical.”

The Nickel Creek trio, according to an online bio, insist they are “a conglomeration of everything we listen to.” The CD collection in their van includes depressive troubadour Elliot Smith, the expansive, ambitious rock band Radiohead, Turtle Island String Quartet, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Pat Metheny, Murray Perahia and J.S. Bach, among others. Sean Watkins began studying classical piano at 6 and continued to do so into his teens, and it was during this time that he discovered bluegrass. Evidently, neither of these musics excludes the other.

Indeed, this first Sean Watkins venture into classical composition is an emblem of the Alias approach: If the music is good, embrace it, passionately share it and feed your imagination on it. Good music, well played, breeds more good music. Witnessing Watkins with Alias members Bowers, Walker, violinist Alison Gooding and violist Judith Ablon in an early rehearsal revealed a fascinating exercise in musical collaboration as the players raised questions and made suggestions. During the course of this insightful give-and-take, brilliant music unheard before except between Watkins’ ears grew into actual resounding form. This kind of music rarely happens anywhere. Wise folk grab it any time they can.


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