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Concert review

With a whimsical premiere, Radius Ensemble serves up an enjoyably varied season finale

Fri May 17, 2024 at 12:16 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Elena Ruehr’s Broadway Boogie Woogie was given its world premiere by the Radius Ensemble Thursday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Christian Steiner

One shouldn’t take program titles too literally. For instance, “Epitome,” Radius Ensemble’s season finale at Longy’s Pickman Hall on Thursday night, didn’t quite showcase—as Radius artistic director Jennifer Montbach intimated it would—the defining works of all of its composers or the genres in which they worked.

What it did provide was a fresh lineup of old and new that spoke to the Ensemble’s conspicuous strengths. It also offered a final chance to celebrate the group’s 25th birthday. 

That aspect of the evening involved the night’s most notable offering, the world premiere of Elena Ruehr’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. Written for Radius’s full complement of ten wind and string instruments plus piano, the whimsical four-movement work takes Piet Mondrian’s eponymous painting as its starting point, veering from wry to reflective and impish, as well as a few things in between.

In her note on Broadway, Ruehr stated that she wanted to write something “fun to play and listen to.” Mission accomplished: Radius certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves onstage and the score, with its structural clarity, strong plays of contrasts, and moments of fetching acerbity sits well on the ear.

Thursday’s rendition, which was recorded for future release, emerged drolly and neatly colored. The first movement’s mix of mischievous refrains and languid lyrical turns conversed elegantly. So did the long-breathed oboe and flute melodies in the “Ghost Song.”

Though the concluding “Tiny Parade”—a mashup of Ibert and the Radetzky March—didn’t quite come off, the preceding “Blue Rag” provided tipsy, Bolcom-worthy panache (and maybe a snatch or two of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”). Ultimately, Broadway was marked by an assurance of character that, as much as its musical content, helped carry the day.

The Radius Ensemble also performed music of Crumb, Reich and Bologne Thursday night. Photo: Liz Linder

There’s no shortage of personality to be had, either, in George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. The 1971 classic for amplified flute, cello, and piano inhabits a world that is at once entirely its own but also strangely familiar.

On Thursday, one was struck by the sheer originality of Crumb’s writing, in particular his seamless blending of conventional musical production with a parade of extended techniques (not to mention masks and lighting effects). Flautist Sarah Brady dispatched the opening “Vocalise” with bracing eeriness, in the process crafting a beguilingly new-sounding instrument from her part’s mix of humming, breath tones, key clicks, and traditional playing.

So, at times, did pianist Sarah Bob, who spent much of Vox Balaenae under her instrument’s lid. The sounds that emerged, from thundering, Banshee-esque clusters to drones and bent notes in the “Variations on Sea-Time,” were as sonically astonishing and unpredictable as they were enchanting.

While the reading had its spotty moments—the whistling episodes of “Sea Nocturne” weren’t quite there and cellist Miriam Bolkosky had issues with the second movement’s “seagull effect” gestures and the last section’s high-lying artificial harmonics. Still,  there was a palpable intensity to the effort that was matched by the concentration of the evening’s packed house.

Similarly incisive and vitalizing was clarinetist Eran Egozy’s performance of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint. Written for eleven clarinets, ten of them prerecorded, the score might be subtitled “How many ways can you canon?” Egozy navigated more than a few, culminating in a raucous, jazzy account of Counterpoint’s last section.

Joseph Bologne’s B-flat major Sonata for violin and viola doesn’t quite offer the last. But it has got plenty of bright energy and, for the violin at least, idiomatic, bravura passagework.

Thursday’s rendition from violinist Gabriela Diaz and violist Noriko Futagami involved sparkling bariolage episodes in the Allegretto and a purposeful delivery of the violin’s double-stop variation in the second movement. Taken together, that largely compensated for the work’s lack of an engaging viola part and its limited textural vocabulary.

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