Tempest of the Familiar 

Alias adapts Pulitzer-winning composition at Turner Hall

Alias adapts Pulitzer-winning composition at Turner Hall

Give Alias credit for venturing into terra incognita. The entire second half of their concert at Turner Recital Hall last Friday featured this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composition, Paul Moravec's "Tempest Fantasy." Though the piece has gained increasing recognition and will continue to be performed by other chamber groups, Alias took a bold step by adapting a work that doesn't have much of a performance history. If all the chamber group's selections suggest an underlying agenda that they deserve wider recognition, "Tempest Fantasy" presents challenges that go beyond the usual problems of performing new works by contemporary composers.

It's true that Moravec himself was able to consult with the group shortly after clarinetist Lee Levine (no relation to the writer) expressed an interest in the work, and he personally visited the group in the latter stages of their preparation. In keeping with the Alias tradition of teaching the audience what to listen for, Moravec introduced the work last Friday and pointed out its quirky changes in tone, its voicing of different Shakespearean characters through the cello, violin and bass clarinet and its prominent leitmotifs.

"Tempest Fantasy" draws on the entire range of a chamber group's resources, and not only for its oscillations between ethereal rhapsodies and sonorous themes. The work makes gestures towards staples of modernism: moments of cacophony, seemingly discontinuous movements that arrive at a multi-tiered apotheosis, and subtly neotonal progressions that lend each of its moods nuanced textures. At the same time, one can hear snippets of what sound like late Romantic patriotic themes and strains of idyllic impressionism that recall Debussy, among other tonal colorists.

Taking stock of these features, one might say that the work leans more towards the comforting side of modernist tradition; that is, the parts of modernism that are most easily assimilated to Romantic classicism. An audience whose listening habits have been shaped by a reverence for canonical works written before the First World War would not feel much strain. Certainly, the different parts of "Fantasy" are more collage-like and its themes are subject to more technical permutations than a work with traditional, continuous melodic development. Nonetheless, it seems to have an inherently nostalgic quality, as if it's bound by time-honored conventions of lyrical articulation and the musical translation of character and literary atmosphere.

Thus, the most daunting task that Alias could have undertaken would be to allow this work to speak within a contemporary Zeitgeist, however much its meaning is conveyed through reassuring traditions. Clarinetist Levine, violinist Zeneba Bowers, cellist Michael Samis and pianist Amy Dorfman, a forceful supporting voice who keyed the many volte-face tonal changes, all reached moments of startling interpretive insight. Structurally, however, "Tempest Fantasy" may not allow the instruments to join in more than passing conversation or to reach more than an expedient ending in which the sum of the individual parts remains greater than the whole.

In this way, the Moravec composition was unlike any of the other works on last Friday's program, which, true to expectations for classical music, reincarnated the feeling of a rigorously coded historical style. The balanced melodic grace of Mozart's Quartet in F Major for Oboe and Strings was apparent from start to finish; the folk storytelling and expressionist breaks of the two cello-and-piano pieces by Dvorák and Janácek were also delivered in steady, flowing dialogue. Even the one other work by a contemporary composer, NSO Pops conductor Jeff Tyzik's Blues Suite for String Quartet, was an unambiguous adaptation of the vernacular 12-bar form that maintained symphonic decorum while dipping its toes in some improvisational breaks: Imagine a string section doing its own set before backing Eric Clapton during his unplugged, Robert Johnson phase.

—Bill Levine

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