Chamber offers mixed bag of sounds

On Saturday evening in Chapin Hall, the Williams Chamber Players performed a concert comprising both avant garde and Baroque pieces. The program, which consisted of Elogio de la Danza by Leo Brouwer; Light Echoes (2009) by Ileana Perez Velázquez, associate professor of music; DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION by David Kechley, professor of music and department chair; and Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major by J.S. Bach. Performing were guitarist Rob Phelps, percussionist Matthew Gold, pianist Doris Stevenson, Tom Bergeron and Steven Dennis Brodner on brass, violist Scott Woolweaver and guest performer Shelly Tramposh, also on viola. Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques was initially on the schedule, but the unexpected illness of Studio Instructor Kerry Ryer-Parke forced its cancellation.

The concert opened with Elogio de la Danza, a piece that draws heavily on Afro-Cuban motifs. Elogio is a technically demanding piece, a demand Phelps met with aplomb. Despite the complexity of its melody and timbre, the piece is fundamentally a rhythmic work, a characteristic many performers often disregard for fear of sounding mechanical. Although Phelps played with metronomic precision, his execution was anything but robotic. This was evident even from the piece’s monotonous opening of three low open Es, a passage that creates the sense of rhythmic constancy pervading throughout the piece. Phelps used these monotonous passages to instill a feeling of suspense that accentuated the piece’s subsequent energy, which required the same highly punctuated staccato of the base rhythmic elements. Phelps’ precision was incredibly impressive – each note was as perfectly distinguished as the last. Clearly, his technical mastery extended to all aspects of the piece.

The next piece, Light Echoes for piano and percussion, began on an ominous, reverberating percussive passage complemented nicely by bass notes from the piano. However, the balance between piano and percussion was often off. The piano’s melodies were frequently inaudible above the percussion, which lent a somewhat cacophonous air to much of the piece. But the presence of a few balanced harmonies indicated that Velázquez intended for the percussion to accompany the piano, not overpower it. Despite this, many passages sounded like two disparate pieces overlaid. Harmonic exchanges between the piano and marimba sounded unpleasantly dissonant; a calm passage in the middle of the piece meant to echo the opening passage felt inappropriately brash. The piece was heard as intended during passages without any percussion – the austerity of the piano’s captivating Steve Reich-esque melodies were nothing less than sublime.

I thought it most unfortunate that Gold could not contain his enthusiasm for Light Echoes, as his performance was markedly less calculated than Stevenson’s. Many – often correctly – attribute the dissonant feel of contemporary music to its atonality or modern aesthetics. In this case, however, its dissonance stemmed solely from a relatively poor rendition of an otherwise fine work.

This was not the case with Kechley’s DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION, a piece that epitomized what many cite as the faults of modern music. Some might think it rather fitting that two of DESIGN’s three movements are named after types of saw blades. Sections from the first movement, “Framing/Ripping,” that one would expect to harmonize seemed intentionally dissonant. For example, Kechley made heavy use of suspended dissonant fourths in passages that would traditionally consist of thirds. The scarcity of harmonious aspects made it difficult to judge whether the first movement of DESIGN was intended as a harmonious composition that had been tainted by poor ensemble balance, as with Light Echoes. Indeed, parts of the first movement sounded like unpleasantly grating melees in which the trumpet, saxophone and percussion were competing for the honor of being the loudest instrument.

In contrast, the second movement, “Rounding Corners,” lacked the harshness of “Framing/Ripping.” Here, Kechley painstakingly interwove the lines of the flugelhorn [a brass instrument resembling the trumpet], baritone saxophone and percussion, rather than capriciously forcing them together. “Rounding Corners” started with a desolate percussion solo punctuated by horn blasts, followed by a long alternating exchange between the flugelhorn and baritone saxophone. The second movement briefly tended towards the chaotic nature of the first before returning a reprise of the more subtle opening.

The principal element of the third movement, “Cross Cuts,” was an enlivening percussive line with a repetitive, Philip Glass-like soprano saxophone line. Like nearly all of Glass’ work, the third movement comprised a series of variations on a single austere passage. “Cross Cuts” was by far the strongest movement, as the subtle, calculated progression of variations on Kechley’s refrain implied the existence of definitive structure, which was sorely lacking in other areas of the piece.

The final piece, Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, provided welcome change. The orchestration of the sixth concerto is quite unique: It lacks a treble instrument, relying on two violas and cello as soloists. This is not a particularly easy arrangement, as the conspicuously mellow timbre of the viola is easily overpowered. Nevertheless, violists Woolweaver and Tramposh struck a perfect balance with the continuo, beautifully capturing the piece’s nuanced subtlety. At long last, the program included an ensemble piece that was not only masterfully orchestrated but also masterfully delivered.

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