January 29, 2016
Concerts in recent days by the SOLI Chamber Ensemble and the Canada-based Gryphon Trio took Las Américas Music Festival to geographical extremes, with the world premiere of a delicious work by the Brazilian composer-singer Clarice Assad and two interesting pieces by Canadian composers.
SOLI’s concert, Jan. 26 in Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall, explored the festival’s pan-American theme with eight works from eight countries, starting in Canada and traveling southward to Argentina, then bouncing back north a little to reserve Assad’s new piece for the finale.
Her Elementos is scored for mezzo-soprano (Assad herself) and SOLI’s core contingent of clarinet (Stephanie Key), violin (Ertan Torgul), cello (David Mollenauer) and piano (Carolyn True). The music fuses Brazilian jazz or bossa nova styles with modernist tendencies, especially for the instrumental parts. Each of the four movements relates to one of the classical elements — in turn earth, fire, water and air.
In the first movement, the instruments provide a dark, roiling, complex backdrop to a text by the Brazilian poet and composer Daniel Basilio. A translation of the poem wasn’t included in the program, so I can’t tell you what it was about, but Ms. Assad’s elegant taffeta voice and expressive jazz phrasing were so fetching that it didn’t matter. In the second movement, a sort of scherzo, the voice part is wordless, producing quiet percussion sounds and, for a melodic passage, a kind of scat singing that sounded a little like a muted trumpet. The third is contemplative and atmospheric. The finale is a lively dance. The whole was consistently engaging, with a distinctly Brazilian fragrance. It made for a pleasurable quarter of an hour.
All the other works on the program were brief. From Canada came Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Hoedown (2000), for clarinet, violin and piano, a tough, high-velocity version of that genre, with an elaborate violin solo inspired by country fiddling. Adam Schoenberg’s Luna y Mar (USA, 2012), for violin, cello and piano, opens in spare serenity, with echoes of Spanish harmonies and melodic contours; a quick, light middle section is followed by a more-dramatic and complex finale.
Mario Lavista, Mexico’s most prominent avant-garde composer, was represented by Cuaderno de viaje I (2000), for solo cello. Fairly simple melodic lines are rendered in unusual techniques — largely raspy harmonics — that suggest an ancient, primordial music. From Colombia came only the compact first movement of Diego Vega’s Sonata for Piano and Clarinet (1990). It opens with an attractive invocation for solo clarinet; a more-dramatic episode for the piano leads to a quick development weaving two themes.
The concert program assigns Gabriela Lena Frank to Peru, but she was born in Berkeley, Calif., and was educated at Rice University in Houston. Her ancestry is Peruvian, Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish. How much more American can one get? Like Walt Whitman, her music contains multitudes. Her Barcarola Latinoamericana (2010), for piano solo, is an excellent example. Through much of the piece the piano emulates a guitar tremolo and evokes a wide range of Latin American folk idioms, but the opening and closing flourishes sound rather like Ravel, and one theme sounded a lot like “My Man’s Gone” from Porgy and Bess. But the composer is in full control of her material, however diverse its sources, and in the end her music is unmistakably her own.
Two different takes on the tango came from Uruguay’s Miguel del Águila and from Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla (of course). The latter’s Tango Etude No. 1 (1987) for violin solo couches tango rhythm and feeling in classical technique that recalls Bach’s unaccompanied suites. Mr. del Águila’s Tango Trio (2002), for clarinet (originally violin), cello and piano, draws on several South American folk idioms and is more free-wheeling, modern and ironic in spirit.
The performances, as usual, we're committed and well-crafted all around. Special notice goes to Ms. True for her stamina in the Frank Barcarola and to Mr. Torgul for his forceful work in Piazzolla’s Tango Etude.
The Gryphon Trio, established 22 years ago, is in residence at the University of Toronto, and its cellist, Roman Boris, is artistic director of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Society. His colleagues are Annalee Patipatanakoon (violin) and James Parker (piano). Their concert, Jan. 24 on the San Antonio Chamber Music Society series at Temple Beth-El, opened with Claude Debussy’s early, Brahmsian Trio in G and closed with Maurice Ravel’s familiar Trio in A Minor. In between came Love Triangle (2013) by Dinuk Wijeratne, a Sri Lanka native who now is based in Canada.
Love Triangle is influenced by traditional Arabic and Indian music. The violin and cello often play sliding or pitch-inflected notes, solo lines tend to be serpentine and highly ornate, and much of the piece is undergirded by a hypnotic pulse. A five-note motto unifies it thematically. At more than 14 minutes it might be a bit longer than it needs to be, and it does seem to lose direction for a while in the middle, but the language is attractive and distinctive.
Debussy was just 18 years old in 1880 when he composed his Trio in G. He hadn’t yet developed his mature voice, but this piece evinces a high level of craft and a fertile melodic imagination. The last of its three movements opens with a gorgeous song on cello, gorgeously played by Mr. Borys, whose warmth and interpretive generosity gave pleasure throughout this concert. Ms. Patipatanakoon’s comparative coolness and her less-yielding tone somewhat undercut the feeling of the Debussy, but worked very nicely in Ravel. Mr. Parker provided clear, flexible work on piano and also served as the trio’s appealing spokesman.