NewEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s final concert of the season, “Distant Travels,” performed Saturday night at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, contained both exotic, worldly influences and an inner, meditative sense of presence.
Dan Coleman’s “Sad and Ancient Phrases” referenced the composer’s emotional and physical journey during the compositional process. Robust double stops in violin (Véronique Mathieu) melded dissonances with piano (Robert Pherigo).
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The melodies shifted focus between the voices, with sudden contrasts of contemporary harmonies or rigorous fiddling. The work felt strongest during unison moments, with a beautiful combined color, though Mathieu’s harmonics lacked stability.
Percussionist Mark Lowry joined them for Lou Harrison’s “Varied Trio.” This piece sounded the most far-reaching of the program, heavily influenced by Asian elements in harmony and timbre. Pherigo, with unfailing delicacy, plucked inside the piano and knocked it with a mallet, establishing a steady, repetitive loop along with vibraphone under a plaintive violin melody.
Lowry played water-tuned rice bowls with quicksilver chopsticks, accompanied by pizzicato, knocking and subtle, quiet chords. Two movements featuring violin were subdued, without much depth to the phrasing or dynamics. In the high-energy final movement, though, the musicians rollicked a dance-like pulse and whirling melody.
The program finished with one of John Luther Adams’ earliest works, “songbirdsongs.” Adams, recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, created evocative soundscapes that harnessed nature’s material to artistic interpretation. The musicians’ choices determined the work’s overall success.
Using primarily piccolos and extensive percussion, each movement had an identifying birdcall or two, along with trills, rolls, shimmering tones, and stirred effects of bamboo and maracas (the wind, leaves and waves), re-creating an environment both responsive and competitive.
The ensemble performed surrounding the audience, the setup enhancing the piece’s spatial requisites. Percussion stations were fore and aft (Lowry with Nick Petrella and William Shaltis) with piccolos on either side (Lyra Pherigo and Adrienne Garstang). Robert Pherigo’s synthesized celesta sounded disquietingly electronic, but Mathieu’s squeaky mimicry of the piccolos was spot-on.
Most successful and transportive of the movements was “Mourning Dove,” featuring ocarinas and undulating marimba, harkening a misty, predawn vision. Also effective was “Joyful Noise,” with aggressive hits and biting piccolo flurries.