Upcoming spring concert highlights Alias Chamber Ensemble's eclectic and intriguing approach to programming 

The Alias Variety Hour (or Two)

The Alias Variety Hour (or Two)

For its spring concert, the musical cooperative Alias Chamber Ensemble draws from a broad musical palette while showcasing its partnership with California-based rising star composer Gabriella Lena Frank. The collaboration marks the all-volunteer ensemble's breakout onto the national stage — it will yield a major new commissioned work, an Alias CD release on Naxos with the composer appearing on piano, and a host of related performances.

Don't worry if you can't tell Haydn's Lark from Schubert's Death and the Maiden. Alias artistic director and violinist Zeneba Bowers says, "We want to reach people who don't necessarily know anything about chamber music."

The sheer variety of Alias' programs goes a long way to keep audiences engaged. Friday's concert ranges from a marimba duet to a seven-piece ensemble of harp, strings and winds, and it features vocal works as well as strictly instrumental ones. And the group's penchant for down-to-earth discussion from the stage helps to deflate the concert hall mystique that can alienate uninitiated listeners. "If the arts represent the best of what human beings can do," says Bowers, "they should be accessible to all people, not just a few."

This doesn't imply any dumbing-down, though — these off-duty symphony players and university teachers are pros at the top of their form whose dedication has won Alias grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the history-rich Schubert Club of St. Paul, and the Nashville Metro Arts Commission.

The ensemble has a kindred spirit in Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and Latin Grammy winner Gabriela Lena Frank, whose previous commissions include works for the Kronos Quartet, guitarist Manuel Barrueco, and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. In her April 21 concert/discussion at Wightman Chapel, Frank made it clear she shares Bowers' interest in reaching non-specialists, explaining her musical concerns at length without once lapsing into technical jargon.

Vanderbilt's philosophy and sociology departments hosted the April performance as part of the interdisciplinary "Music, Authority and Community" project, a co-sponsor of the Frank commission. Alias will premiere the new piece this fall at the Blair School of Music, but we can also expect to hear it in community centers and other nontraditional performance spaces — and the recent NEA grant will bring Frank into Nashville's Latino community for a Mestiza Music outreach program in September.

Friday's concert has percussionists Christopher Norton and Todd Kemp performing Frank's Danza de los Saqsampillos, a recent arrangement for two marimbas of music from her 2000 Sonata Andina for piano. In her April performance, the composer described how the sonata evokes Andean folkloric music through pianistic imitation of the marimba — it will be fun to hear how the music translates back onto this quintessentially South American instrument.

The program's second Frank piece explores another aspect of Hispania — the 2007 Quijotadas for string quartet draws its narrative from the tale of Cervantes' Knight of the Rueful Countenance. Both pieces will have their recording premieres on Alias' forthcoming CD, which will also feature Alias cellist and executive director Matt Walker in a duo with the composer, alongside the commissioned work and some piano solos.

But this weekend's concert is more than a Frank revue. We'll hear Maurice Ravel's beautiful 1905 Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet. This highlight of the composer's early maturity, following close on the heels of his 1903 String Quartet, delves into some of the rich and delicate instrumental combinations that would characterize Ravel's later orchestral output.

Alias cellists Christopher Stenstrom and Michael Samis continue their ongoing exploration of multiple-cello repertoire with the Eleven Caprices for two cellos by Philippe Hersant, a steady presence in French music since the late 1970s. Originally written for two violins as part of a Kafka-inspired 1994 theatrical piece, the short pieces are modeled on Bartók's string duos — the composer refashioned them for cellos in 2003.

This concert also concludes Alias' two-season "Emerging Voices" series highlighting the work of women composers. In addition to Frank's music, the program features three songs by the brilliant but short-lived Lili Boulanger, whose instrumental masterpiece D'un matin de printemps appeared earlier in the series. Soprano Sharon Mabry, who will sing the Boulanger songs, appeared on the Nashville Symphony's 2009 Naxos CD Abraham Lincoln Portraits. The multi-faceted Roger Wiesmeyer, best known as the NSO's excellent English horn player, accompanies her at the piano.

As always, Alias' proceeds will benefit a local charity — in this case Progress Inc., which serves adults with developmental disabilities.

Nashville Symphony finds alternate venues

After the Schermerhorn Center's much-publicized basement flooding, readers may wonder what's in store for the Nashville Symphony. The Los Angeles Philharmonic concert on March 15 (see Critics' Picks on p. 21) and the NSO season finale featuring Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle March 20 to 22 will be held in TPAC's Jackson Hall, and seats are still available at press time for both concerts. Venues are still being arranged for the summer festival concerts, so watch the NSO website for updates.

And Nashville Symphony CEO Alan Valentine wants this year's Fourth of July to be the most spectacular ever. Speculation about when the hall may reopen is premature, but Valentine says that one thing is certain: "Nashville's prized concert hall will be restored to its full glory — it will take some time and money and a little help from our friends, but we're a strong, resilient organization, and we will get it done."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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