Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: Atlantic Chamber Ensemble

April 7, Gallery 5, Richmond

For the finale of its first season, the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble (ACE for short) dipped into one of the more curious subcultures of the past few decades: “Steampunk,” a genre of speculative fiction that imagines a cast-iron rococo future, powered by Victorian-style technology – steam engines, dirigibles, flywheels and clockworks – with fashion and furnishings of (sort of) similar vintage.

This gave ACE the opportunity to perform chamber music in fancy dress (river-boat gambler waistcoats, top hats, pseudo-antique frocks and wigs) and, more to the point musically, to contrast the old with the new.

The group, playing to a sold-out house, couldn’t have asked for a more fitting venue than Gallery 5, a 19th-century firehouse converted to a gallery and performance space, although the musicians probably craved a quieter ventilation system.

“Steampunk,” an octet for strings and winds written in 2010 by the Anglo-American composer David Bruce, provided the program with both an aesthetic summation and a big finish. Bruce employs almost the same instrumentation that Franz Schubert used in his Octet (substituting an oboe for Schubert’s second violin), and uses modern and contemporary sound effects and rhetorical gestures to ornament a musical framework that composers of the classical and romantic eras would have recognized.

The five-movement piece, as played by violinist Susanna Klein, violist Kimberly Sparr, cellist Jason McComb, double-bassist Fred Dole, oboist Shawn Welk, clarinetist Ralph Skiano, bassoonist Martin Gordon and French horn player Debra Fialek, came across as neoclassicism liberally garnished with whimsical modernism and romantic expressive warmth.

Bruce’s “Steampunk” was paired with Tristan Perich’s “1-Bit Symphony,” a cheerfully burbling little piece that is performed – or, more accurately, executed – by a programmed chip on a computer. A bit of decorative circuitry (the chip itself would be barely visible) was presented as the performer; it even took a bow as the audience applauded. For visual accompaniment, there was a screening of a printout reporting the computer functions.

Two other pairings more explicitly contrasted old and new: The first movement of Mozart’s Divertimento in E flat major, K. 563, with Michael Daugherty’s Mozart-inspired “Diamond in the Rough;” and Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major for piccolo, strings and continuo with Daugherty’s “Dead Elvis” for bassoon and chamber ensemble.

In “Dead Elvis,” bassoonist Gordon performed in the obligatory Elvis-in-Vegas sequined white jumpsuit, although without the semi-obligatory (and inauthentic) 1950s duck-tail hairdo. For the Vivaldi, piccolo soloist Ann Choomack opted for a Dresden-figurine look of gold gown and white wig – also inauthentic, but undoubtedly sightlier than the outfit worn by a pre-teen girl in a Venetian convent school, for whom Vivaldi would have written the concerto. Looks aside, both delivered fine accounts of their note-heavy solos.

In the Mozart-Daugherty pairing, the Mozart proved to be rougher than Daugherty’s “Diamond,” not surprising in that the former is much harder to play.

ACE opened the program with two 21st-century musical settings of William Blake’s poem “The Garden of Love.” Rodney Money’s version gives the text to a chamber chorus (here, four women from the Richmond Symphony Chorus), with the voices, cello (McComb) and piano (Maria Yefimova) performing a tune that more than vaguely recalls the pop-folk genre. The setting by the Dutch composer Jacob Ter Veldhius (aka JacobTV), in which a manipulated recording of an English reader forms a duet with oboe (Welk) while a surrealistically impressionistic film (by Amber Boardman) is screened, is a more interesting and pointed treatment of Blake’s theme of sensuality out of reach.

Short videos by JacobTV, Daugherty, Perich and Bruce were helpful introductions to their compositions. While identifying the medieval Dies irae and “O Solo Mio”/“It’s Now or Never as main themes of “Dead Elvis,” Daughtery might have added nods for rhythmic inspiration to Lalo Schifrin's “Mission Impossible” theme and James Brown’s “Night Train.”