Sunday, May 29, 2016

Violin-piano duo offers a scintillating hour of new music, including a Frank Felice premiere

Frank Felice composed a sonata out of his faith to an Ascending commission.
Musical groups that make their way into the classical-music world gain more than points for boldness if they specialize in new music.  They also form connections with living composers and the people who follow them while honing their performing partnership in ways not available to adherents of traditional repertoire.

Ascending is a local violin-piano duo providing a case in point. Formed in 2014, it has collaborated in multimedia events and played in unconventional venues in addition to commissioning new music.

An hourlong recital Saturday afternoon at IUPUI introduced me to Ascending in a program of works by five composers, all of them very much alive and creating, with the exception of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). The rapturously played eighth movement of the French composer's Quartet for the End of Time was well-placed near the concert's end, just after the longest piece,  "A Liturgy of the Hours" (Violin Sonata No. 1), by Frank Felice of Butler University.

Lasting about 25 minutes, the new work interprets the eight liturgical hours set for periodic daily devotion, three hours apart around the clock. As played Saturday by the commissioning musicians  — Caitlin Foster, piano, and Tricia Frasure, violin — the sonata struck me as quite well focused and evocative in movement after movement. As if homing in on the meaning of each part of the liturgy, Felice has come up with a balanced work that highlights the emotion characteristic of the succession of prayers.

In Matins, for instance, with its plea that the worshipers' lips be opened so that praise can emerge, the violin seems to open up like a bud from an initially closed posture, the piano coaxing it through ringing chords in the treble. Succeeded by Lauds, the piece becomes exuberant, and inside-the-piano notes seem to represent the thrilling realization that "it is good to praise the Lord." Prime focuses on the worshiper's consideration of God's immense creation, so that slow, contemplative music takes over; wonder is uppermost, as the movement subsides into a long diminuendo. wonderfully played at the premiere.

Terse and None, both  prefaced textually by a threefold "Alleluia," adopt contrasting representations of praise. The psalm text to the former emphasizes praise as a Christian's proper response to evil and the wish for divine protection from it. The pianist picks up mallets for tapping darkly on the strings, suggesting the menace that the violinist holds off with a sustained flutter of praise somewhat resembling country fiddling. None, on the other hand, is a piano solo. A differently tuned (scordatura) second violin is brought into play for Vespers, and that movement's theme of rest is extended into the finale, Compline, with the pianist making delicate use of mallets and the violinist exploiting fluty timbres in imitation of the ascent into sleep at day's end.

Felice's raptly centered, cogent composition was preceded by another premiere, Ascending's commission of Alondra Vega-Zaldivar's "Play-date with Robert," a delightfully titled triptych that spins off from elements in Robert Schumann's "Davidsbündlertänze." Modestly described by the composer as "three silly pieces," they are four minutes of succinct fun, each piece suggestive of its title: "Hopscotch," "Tag and Fugue," and "Hide and Seek."

Another caprice closed the program. I look askance at lower-case composition titles, but I quickly got past that habitual objection as Tom Dempster's "seven selected snapshots of a lingering spectre"  ran its 11-minute course. Restless, aggressive, playful, eerie, and pestering by turns, the work is a multifaceted, whimsical evocation of its "lingering spectre." The ghost is fully present at one moment, then maybe not at all in the next. That has got to be the real nature of spectres, whatever one believes about their actuality. In the realm of such fey art, it's worthwhile to suspend disbelief.

The recital's vestibule was occupied by Gabrielle Cerberville's "Messier 83," a largely meditative, five-minute piece with a poised dialogue initiated by the violin. It provided an apt introduction to this expert duo and its metier — the product of genuine rapport achieved according to the partnership's   bold prospectus of investing in new music.