Review: Decades Later, a Classic Concert Gets a Redo


“Circles” is one of Berio’s pioneering works exploring new ways to set texts to music. Here, the words of three E. E. Cummings poems are milked by Berio for maximum expressive effect. Syllables are eerily prolonged; images (like “lewd fat bells”) are evoked through vocal lines that dart skittishly. The soprano Tony Arnold, a contemporary-music champion, sang with uncanny precision while sustaining high tones with ethereal beauty.

The soprano part is not so much accompanied as reacted to by the harp (the impressive Bridget Kibbey) and the two batteries of percussion (Daniel Druckman and James Baker). Frenetic volleys of percussion rapping, chiming and tinkling seem like animated commentaries on the vocal lines, not intrusive interruptions.

Ms. Arnold was also the soloist for the American premiere of Matthew Ricketts’s “Song Cycle” for soprano, viola (Gabriela Diaz) and recorders (Héloïse Degrugillier, switching between two). The composer sets words from his own abstract text (lines like “Between the slabs of hardwood ran hot animal glue”) to restless vocal lines. I liked the way the viola and recorders mingled so closely: one moment prolonging tart harmonies, the next trading perky sputterings.

Ms. Shaw is the only candidate for a doctoral degree in the history of Princeton University whose résumé already includes a Pulitzer Prize for music (awarded in 2013 to her “Partita for 8 Voices”). A beguiling and quirky sensibility runs through her best pieces, as in the 2016 work presented here, “First Essay: Nimrod,” performed by the excellent Calidore String Quartet. At the start, the music (inspired by the writings of Marilynne Robinson) is genial with bits of breezy tunes and lilting riffs. Soon, chords slip out of focus, phrases turn fidgety, lines become curiously repetitive. And so it continues as the piece unfolds, at one point breaking into a babble of busyness.

Ms. Lash, in “How to Remember Seeds” for string quartet, attempts to fracture, tweak and develop little motifs and figures. You hear the intricate tinkering right through. The music was curiously dominated by its surface qualities, which, to me, evoked the plush sonorities and soaring lines of Ravel. The Calidore players brought rich sound and articulate grace to the piece, which ended the final concert of the 60th season of this important series.

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