By Scott MacClelland
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU attend a classical chamber music concert in which the only ‘familiar’ piece dates way back to 2012? That piece, Kevin Puts’ Living Frescoes, was a Chamber Music Monterey Bay commission, here performed by a quartet of musicians from Copland House, the upstate New York home of composer Aaron Copland for the last three decades of his life and now a cultural center “where America’s musical past and future meet.” The concert, played by Copland House resident musicians, was dubbed ‘From Beginning to End,’ and included local premieres of the new and the old. The old were the early first piano trio by a teenaged Shostakovich and the late piano trio by Gabriel Fauré, both composed in 1923. The Puts work, and the California premiere of Angel Lam’s Fragrance of the Sea, a Copland House commission that premiered in 2017, are both quartets for clarinet, violin, cello and piano.
That quartet configuration descends from Olivier Messiaen’s harrowing concentration camp masterpiece, Quartet for the End of Time. Its influence is quite palpable in Living Frescoes, a 30-minute work that also deals with life, death and the afterlife. (Like its premiere, still images from a like-themed surreal video installation by Bill Viola, a Southern California artist unafraid to tackle such existential themes, were projected on a screen behind the performers.)
Chinese-born Lam’s 12-minute work is more a breezy travelogue, tracing her journey from rural China to Shanghai, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York, where she now lives. The piece opens with flavors of Chinese pentatonic scales. The Shanghai episode imagines the city in 1945, long before Lam herself was born. The piece gently embraces elements of jazz in its closing moments.
The Shostakovich also moves through time, from late 19th century Russian romanticism in its lyrical moments to Shostakovian sarcasm when animated by rhythm, “a portrait of the artist as a young man,” pianist Michael Boriskin said from the stage. Boriskin remarked on the 21-minute Fauré as a combination of “elegance and heartbreak.”
Joining Boriskin were violinist Curtis Macomber, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach and clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, a fine ensemble all around. They will record the Puts and, most likely, the Lam later this season on the Copland House Blend label.