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Beethoven Festival: SOLI Chamber Ensemble

Collaborations across two centuries

January 24, 2012

Thematic material from Beethoven’s ever-astonishing “Grosse Fuge” passed through several modern lenses in one of the most enterprising and intriguing concert programs of recent years, assembled by the SOLI Chamber Ensemble on Jan. 23 in Gallery Nord.

For its contribution to the two-month Beethoven Festival initiated by the San Antonio Symphony, the chamber group commissioned four short pieces drawing on ideas from the “Great Fugue” -- as it’s called in English -- plus a new arrangement of the work for SOLI’s roster of clarinet and bass clarinet (Stephanie Key), violin (Ertan Torgul), cello (David Mollenauer) and piano (Carolyn True). All five still-breathing composers were present at the concert and spoke about their works. Beethoven himself, alas, was otherwise engaged.

The arranger of the “Grosse Fuge,” originally composed as the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, was Brian Bondari, a newly appointed faculty member at Trinity University. The effect of replacing some of the string voices with the timbres of clarinet and piano was to make this music -- the weirdest and wildest that Beethoven (or anyone) ever created -- even weirder and wilder, yet appealingly sweet and pastoral in the calm central episode. SOLI played the piece twice, to open and close the concert, and it held up well to repetition. 

(Mr. Bondari was born in Mason City, Iowa, also the home of “The Music Man” composer Meredith Willson. Perhaps, to honor his birthplace, Mr. Bondari should consider arranging the “Grosse Fuge” for 76 trombones. Then again, perhaps not.)

All four of the wholly-new pieces together could nearly fit within the 18-minute frame of the “Grosse Fuge.” But all proved very substantial and ambitious works from very different aesthetic standpoints.

Most remarkable was the “Grosse Fuge Fantasy” by Paul Moravec, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his “Tempest” Fantasy, performed by SOLI in 2008. He also has been commissioned to compose a work for the 2012 San Antonio International Piano Competition.

Mr. Moravec noticed a congruence (with transpositions) between the first four notes of the opening theme of the “Grosse Fuge”and Dmitri Shostakovich’s signature “DSCH” motto -- the notes D-E-flat-C-B. The “Grosse Fuge Fantasy” is a dark, swirling, rushing, highly complex danse macabre that partakes of some of the feeling of Shostakovich’s diabolical-sardonic mode but reaches beyond it into Moravec’s distinctive brand of fleetness and high density.

Xi Wang’s “Encounter Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge” was a ghostly work, in the main, punctuated by brief outbursts of jollity. Tautly structured and eerily beautiful, it was over too soon. Ms. Xi, a native of China, teaches at Southern Methodist University.

Douglas Balliett’s “Groove Parade” uses the “Grosse Fuge” main theme as grist for a nutty, sometimes cartoonish work shaded with American pop sensibilities and extended instrumental techniques. This music throws bizarre knuckle balls that consistently hit the strike zone. Mr. Balliett is both a composer and a terrific bassist who played for a while with the San Antonio Symphony.

The title of Dan Welcher’s “Romanza” (Duettino) refers to the romance (one assumes, given that they are married to each other) between Mr. Mollenauer and Ms. Key, whose instruments take the foreground in this piece. Mr. Welcher very neatly exploits the tonal instability of his source material from the “Grosse Fuge.” The music stays aloft, refusing to rest. It is sometimes dark, seemingly shot through with wisps of memory. The idiom is fairly conservative, but far from timid, and the craftsmanship is excellent.

The performances, as one expects from SOLI, were crisp and confident all around.

The program repeats Jan. 24 at 7:30 pm in  Ruth Taylor Recital Hall.

Mike Greenberg