Radius Ensemble program explores musical boundaries from Ives to Coleman

May 22, 2022 at 1:51 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Radius Ensemble performed Saturday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Liz Linder

Given the focus on personal space engendered by the pandemic, Radius Ensemble’s season finale, titles “Boundaries,” seemed both an apt reflection on recent times and a hopeful look towards the future. 

Thankfully, Saturday night’s concert at Longy’s Pickman Hall was wholly without the bitter political grandstanding that’s come to mar so much contemporaneous public discourse. Rather, the focus was musical and—whatever the styles works by Nino Rota, Valerie Coleman, Tōru Takemitsu, and Charles Ives straddled—they proved provocative in a good way.

At the heart of the evening was Ives’ Piano Trio. Of all major composers, Ives probably had the least respect for traditional boundaries of any kind: harmonic, rhythmic, textural, metrical, thematic—he gleefully thumbed his nose at them all.

The Trio, begun in 1904 and finished in 1911, certainly doesn’t pay them much heed. Its three movements all inhabit their own spaces: from the starkly Modernist opening Moderato to the riotously funny scherzo (it’s labeled TSIAJ, or “This Scherzo is a Joke”) and the pungently dissonant but deeply affecting finale. Quotations abound, from the hymnal, patriotic rally, and camp meeting. Tonal resolution is often lurking, but, just as frequently, delayed.

Saturday’s performance from violinist Gabriela Díaz, cellist Miriam Bolkosky, and pianist Sarah Bob captured all of the music’s complexity in a technically masterful and emotionally satisfying way. Though the ensemble brought a certain mournful warmth to the start of the first movement, their larger reading didn’t want for dramatic shape or rhythmic intensity. To be sure, the string players’ tender phrasing of their figures in the mighty closing bars was stirring, serving to highlight the sheer humanity of Ives’ writing—a choice that was echoed with haunting understatement in the fragment of the hymn “Rock of Ages” that turns up at the end of the finale.

In between came a boisterous scherzo. Ives described this movement as a recollection of collegiate hi-jinx and it certainly sounded wild and irreverent. Bob drew out the Bartókian force of the keyboard writing—her take on the climax thunderous but never out of control—while Diaz and Bolkosky navigated its textural thickets with aplomb. Suffice it to say, this was an Ives Trio of real sympathy and understanding, equally concentrated in terms of rhythm, melody, and character.

Those same qualities were evident in the reading of Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea III that flautist Sarah Brady and harpist Ina Zdorovetchi offered earlier in the night.

Written for flute and guitar in 1981 but presented Saturday in Takemitsu’s 1989 adaptation for alto flute and harp, this is one of several of the composer’s meditations on natural phenomena. Here, the focus is on the sea as filtered through Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick.

Brady and Zdorovetchi offered a reading that was, on the one hand, darkly lyrical: the outer movements were fluidly shaped but consistently songful. At the same time, it was also highly personable, with the hesitating waltz rhythms of the central “Moby Dick” an enchanting highlight.

Dancing figurations likewise marked Coleman’s Rubispheres #1-3. An ongoing set of musical commentaries on specific locales, the Rubispheres reference all sorts of touchstones, vernacular and otherwise.

Scored for flute, clarinet, and bassoon, Coleman’s music was dispatched with confidence and no little vigor. If the outer pair are essentially of a kind, mixing unison ensemble writing with more independent, sometimes canonic, passagework, the central “Serenade” offers a mellifluous respite. That the piece didn’t leave the strongest impression was more a reflection of its company on the program than the evening’s performance. Indeed, Adrian Morejon’s bassoon riffs in the opening movement were conspicuously fine.

Leading off the evening was Rota’s thoroughly appealing Quintet. Written in 1935, the piece—for the odd combination of flute, oboe, viola, cello, and harp—anticipates some of the composer’s later film scores as much as its middle movement echoes the influence of Respighi.

Regardless, it’s unfailingly fresh and tuneful music, as the Ensemble demonstrated last night. The outer movements, sunny and flowing, wanted little for personality; Brady’s flute solos in the first were exceptionally carefree. Meanwhile, the central Adagio, with its shapely contributions from violist Noriko Futagami and oboist Jennifer Montbach, built to an impassioned climax.

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