Think of a variety show in the best sense of the phrase, and you'll appreciate what Alias accomplished in their final concert of the season at Turner Recital Hall last Thursday night. All their various members and guests had a chance to shine, and moments of theatrical flair were counterbalanced by more quietly rigorous performances that rewarded continual attention.
The evening began with an unannounced tribute to the late NSO conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, who guided and inspired nearly all the ensemble's players. In an arrangement for four cellists, J. S. Bach's "Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother," an elegy originally written for solo keyboard, took on special poignancy. The voices of the cellists were like a somber litany that commemorated their loss and testified to the creative force that the maestro had imparted to them.
This mournful opening paved the way for a first half that arced from sprightly improvisation to contemplative bliss to a more general meditation on struggling to arrive at a final peace, Shostakovich's String Quartet no. 14. Violinist Zeneba Bowers' unflaggingly graceful variations on the 17th century virtuoso Matteis' Ayres was followed by Licia Jaskunas' technically demanding solo performance on the five movements of Britten's Suite for Harp. This work at first seems to break the celestial stereotype associated with the harp by its blunt striking, atonal shifting and somber bass tones, yet through various cross-handed passages, subtle ornamentation and changes of tempo, the piece arrived at a delicate, if not entirely resolved, resonance.
If the arc of the second half of the concert was less conventional, it ended on an uplifting note, the premiere of Quartet for Clarinet, Marimba, Cello and Bass by Alias cellist Matt Walker. Clarinetist Lee Levine's quote of Wardell Gray's jazz standard "Twisted" spoke to the playful yet challenging freedom of the piece, a miniature suite of classicized blues, swing and chamber jazz that lifted the audience's spirits with its rhythmical about-faces. The two works that preceded it, Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera's Pampeana no. 2 for Cello and Piano, and Brahms' Sonatensatz for Violin and Piano were also notable as the representatives of an idiosyncratic modernism and a feverish Romanticism. The first composition offered both an abstract unraveling of its symbolic folk motifs and broken patches of mimetic galloping across the pampas. Violinist Alison Gooding and pianist Audrey Causilla plunged in medias res to inhabit the triumphant momentum of the young Brahms' single-movement contribution to a collaborative sonata, capturing both its flowing trills and rolling groundswells.
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*Alexandra Grace, not Alexadra Grace