New World offers an intriguing, essentially American chamber program

By David Fleshler

“Autumn Wheat Harvest,” by Walt Curlee, 2010.

A chamber music concert without string quartets?  Or piano trios or piano quartets? Yes, and it was an intriguing change of pace Sunday when members of the New World Symphony took to the stage in less frequently heard combinations of instruments.

We had a work for horn and harp, another for flute and guitar, a third for trumpet, English horn and strings, and one for seven stringed instruments, in a concert at New World Center in Miami Beach devoted mostly to American works.

Although horn and harp may seem like a strange combination, the buttery smooth tone of the horn married well with the more percussive, harmonically complex plucked tones of the harp in Jean-Michel Damase’s richly melodic 1987 work,  Aspects. Harpist Grace Browning  easily handled what appeared to be a difficult part, swiftly plucking out harmonies reminiscent of Ravel. Horn player Alexander Kienle deployed a wide palette of colors–warm and melodic, light and percussive, dark and assertive–while holding the volume of his instrument in check so he never overpowered the harp.

Robert Beaser’s 1985 Mountain Songs consists of works for flute and guitar inspired by the folk tunes of the Appalachians, where old melodies from England and Ireland survived along with older forms of English language. Beaser composed his own melodies and settings, using the original songs only as inspiration. He kept his materials spare and simple, with only a glint of dissonance here, a complex riff in the guitar there, to suggest the musical mind behind the songs.

Guitarist Cameron O’Connor was especially effective in the quick and diabolical figures running through “The House Carpenter,” and he contributed nostalgic and twangy tones to the song “Cindy.” Flutist Melanie Lançon is the possessor of a rich, full and lyrical tone, and she used it to bring out the poignancy of these simply melodies.

The concert opened with Aaron Copland’s 1940 work Quiet City, assembled from incidental music he composed for a play by Irwin Shaw. The restrained trumpet playing of Eli Maurer brought out the lonely urban feeling of the work, as he gave a subtle performance with fine gradations of volume and intensity. Kevin Pearl on the English horn gave an eloquent solo performance, with a warm vibrato giving his playing a more overtly expressive tone.

The concert ended with a contemporary classic, John Adams’ 1978 work Shaker Loops. Although often performed by string orchestra, it was played here in the original instrumentation for string septet: three violins, viola, two cellos and bass.

The smaller forces–and the adeptness of the New World players–brought extra clarity and crispness to the performance. As the musicians sawed away at the swift repeated figures that dominate the work,  crescendos built over the course of minutes, as the rush of sound built almost imperceptibly to climaxes. The ghostly harmonics and glissandos of the “Hymning Slews” section easily penetrated the surrounding music, with stabs of eerie tones. Rather than sounding robotic, the music came off with headlong energy, not from sheer loudness but from the finely calibrated intensity the musicians brought to the performance.

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Sun Feb 3, 2013
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