Now in its 10th season, Alias Chamber Ensemble is familiar to local concertgoers as an all-volunteer cooperative of seasoned instrumentalists who somehow find time to squeeze three eclectic chamber music programs each year into their demanding careers at the Nashville Symphony and elsewhere.
But Alias is hardly just a moonlight affair. Riding high on its successful first album, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Small Ensemble Performance, the group is already wrapping up its second recording project: a collection of works by New York-based composer-violist Kenji Bunch.
Saturday's concert at the Blair School of Music featured the premiere of Bunch's new quartet for horn and strings, 26.2, written especially for the ensemble's upcoming Delos Records CD.
Cellist and founding member Matt Walker disarmingly explained from the stage how 26.2 depicts the composer's progress through the New York City marathon. Even apart from these narrative underpinnings, the work suggests an open-aired (and open-eared) urban sensibility in which diverse strains mix freely, evoking marching bands, fiddle tunes, hard rock and bagpipes within a fabric of more elemental expression.
Bunch took good advantage of the players' particular strengths. Walker got the chance to lay down some funky plucked cello grooves, and Leslie Norton's soaring and crystal-clear horn theme anchored the piece at both ends, with the tense high-register opening figure from violinist and artistic director Zeneba Bowers and violist Chris Farrell giving way to a more full-throated recapitulation as the piece neared the finish line.
Norton also teamed with her husband, composer-percussionist Christopher Norton, in his charming 2009 duet Open Door, Peninsula Field for marimba and horn. This unselfconscious piece allowed a hint of Latin-tinged rhythms into the mallet man's sure-handed phrasing, and the horn's mellow resonance blended wonderfully with the marimba's rich timbre.
The percussionist switched to vibraphone for Stevan Tickmayer's 2005 Three Variations on a Theme by J.S. Bach, which also featured violinist Alison Gooding and pianist Melissa Rose. Their interpretation was clear and focused throughout, from the clean precision of the sustained opening chords through the perpetuum mobile of Gooding's central solo, to the lively final variation.
Gooding and harpist Licia Jaskunas opened the evening with Bunch's 2002 Luminaria, also slated to appear on the upcoming album. This reflective duet had many beautiful moments, including a delicately handled climax where a sustained high tremolo pitch in the harp passed seamlessly to the violin.
Jumping back a century, cellist Michael Samis and pianist Leah Bowes gave a compelling rendition of Debussy's 1915 Sonata for Cello and Piano. Samis clearly relished the opportunity to dig into this masterwork of the composer's late maturity, and he made every note count. The duo played cleanly and tastefully, with sympathetic accord in phrasing and interpretation.
The program concluded with Kevin Keller's raucous 2008 Riding the Purple Twilight for amplified string quartet, adding violinist Jeremy Williams to the mix. Inconsistencies in amplification gear created some disunity in the sound, but the incisive and energetic performance made for an effective close.
One of Alias' great strengths follows from its volunteer nature: These accomplished players only take on repertoire they sincerely enjoy. The result is an unpretentious conviction that resonates well with diverse audiences even when the music is unfamiliar. It's no wonder that a well-established composer like Bunch wants to work with this dynamic group.
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