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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 2 years ago

ensembleNEWSRQ 's 'Fire and Light' burns bright with innovative sounds

Guest violist Jessica Meyer contributes a fascinating trio of compositions
by: Edward Alley Contributor

    Now in its fourth season, ensembleNEWSRQ, under the artistic direction of George Nickson and Samantha Bennett, continues to thrill, entertain and sometimes puzzle its audiences with a broad range of new and newer music.

    Such was the case with their recent concert, titled “Fire and Light,” heard Jan. 20 at the First Congregational Church, featuring violist-composer Jessica Meyer.

    Meyer is an excellent violist who started her composing career only five years ago, but she has already performed and had her compositions performed in many outstanding venues. Her composing commissions include the Historical Performance Program of the Juilliard School, which commissioned her contribution to a multi-composer project with other leading composers of the day.

    This concert featured three of Meyer’s compositions, the first a work for solo viola, “Delta Sunrise,” inspired by an in-flight sunrise. She used a sound-looping pedal, which recorded and played back sounds as she continued to play and add more sounds to be loop, creating several layers of themes, accompaniments and motions.  Short, but a most effective work.

Jessica Meyer's three songs demonstrated a wide range of skill and creativity. Photo by Thomas Celan.

    “Tapped Into the Same Vein” is for string quintet: Samantha Bennett and Jennifer Best Takeda, violins; Meyer and Rachel Halvorsen, violas; and Natalie Helm, cello.  In her extremely personable introduction, Meyer explained that she feels that baroque and rock music are somewhat “tapped into the same vein,” with their driving rhythms and harmonies. “Tapped…” is vaguely dissonant and at times reminded me slightly of the very late Beethoven quartets, when he seemed to be forcing the limits of tonality and harmony.  Melodic phrases in violins and violas were contrasted at times with an ostinato of rhythm that seemed ever-present.

    Meyer’s final work was “Sagrada Familia,” composed for an unlikely combination of  instruments: Laura Petty, clarinet and bass clarinet; Conor Hanick, piano; Bennett, violin; Meyer, viola; and Helm, cello.

    In this work, Meyer relays her impressions of Gaudi’s monumental “Sagrada Familia” basilica in Barcelona.  Each movement highlights one aspect of the structure, beginning with the almost tonal reflections of the Nativity, led by clarinet and piano. Next were the contrasting façades showing both solid and candle-like melting of the spires, with excellent musical imagery of the bass clarinet. This contrasted with the flowing and melding of musical sounds, evoking the images of moving light through the stained-glass windows in the third movement. The finale brought us back to the hustle and bustle of the traffic and busyness outside, with jazzy fugal motives shooting back and forth among the instruments, bringing the work to a rousing conclusion. The audience loved it.

    Earlier in the evening was “Ins Licht,” by Georg Friedrich Haas, for piano trio, performed by Bennett, Helm and Hanick. The piano was “prepared” with coins or objects to alter the sound, and the work to me consisted as a parade of  effects: scraping sounds from the strings and fragmented passages on the piano, amplified for the occasion.

    The centerpiece of the concert was Eric Wubbels’ “the children of fire come looking for fire,” for amplified violin and prepared piano, valiantly performed by violinist Bennett and pianist Hanick.

    I sometimes feel that contemporary music is like contemporary art: You either like it or you don’t, and you can’t really say why. While many in the audience gave every impression that they were thrilled by the somewhat organized cacophony — that was my impression of the work — I have to say it completely passed me by. I’m sure it’s worthy, since the composer is well known in his field, but for me this envelope was pushed over the edge.

    However, I applaud both performers for the tenacity, time and, yes, courage to take on a work that must have been a steep mountain to climb. But climb it they did, and survived.

    I can’t help but admire everyone associated with ensembleNEWSRQ  for bringing this new repertoire and artistic performance into the musical life of Sarasota. Here’s hoping they stay around for many more seasons.

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Edward Alley is a conductor, former manager of the NY Philharmonic, associate director of the Juilliard Opera Center and director of the MBRockefeller Fund for Music. He succeeds his wife, the late June LeBell, as producer/host of SILL’s Music Mondays.

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