It has been a momentous season of exquisite songs for NOVA Chamber Music Series, and the closing concert will cap it properly. Songs of Migration (May 1, 3 p.m.,Libby Gardner Hall) offers a sample of familiar works and pieces that deserve widespread attention – all of the selections signifying cross-cultural fertilization in music.
No NOVA season with Fry Street Quartet at the helm as the organization’s music directors would be complete without at least one work by Béla Bartók: Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm. This is the last set of pieces in the final volume of his ethnomusicological masterpiece Mikrokosmos. Perhaps the quintessential metaphor of migration, Butterflies Remember a Mountain is a 2013 work by Arlene Sierra, a London-based musician named last year as composer-in-association with the Utah Symphony.
Appropriately timed with Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, the concert will highlight the North American premiere of Tesserae, a 2015 piece by Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, who works in many different genres and settings. The work, based on an Arab folk song, is scored for standard brass quintet. His commissions have included the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Kronos Quartet, arrangements for pop icons Shakira and Tina Turner, as well as a recent collaboration with British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh. The concert will close with Antonín Dvořák’s String Quintet, Opus. 97, which also happens to carry the American title, just as with his famous string quartet. The composer wrote this during his stay in a tiny Iowa town which reminded him of his own rural roots in his native Bohemian land.
NOVA’s kaleidoscopic journey this season has produced distinguished moments at every concert of the Songs series. Earlier this month, Songs of the Americas featured Clarice Assad’s string quartet Canções da America, which the Fry Street Quartet had commissioned from the composer. The perfect musical travelog in six movements highlighting the folk dance cultures of South American countries as a tribute to the continent’s women composers, the quartet was the perfect vehicle for Fry Street members, who gave it a full-blooded kinetic reading. Similarly, the Utah premiere of Anthony R. Green’s Gettysburg Address, a 2010 work scored for soprano, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion, was among the best performances of the season, with Devin Maxwell conducting the chamber ensemble.
As noted last fall in The Utah Review’s season preview, NOVA continues to demonstrate persuasively that chamber music series can extend well beyond conventional expectations in terms of period, style and instrumentation. In addition to just one Beethoven selection, there were two works from before 1700 and just a handful of works from the 19th and 20th centuries, including Clara Schumann, Prokofiev, Brahms, Dvořák, Bartók and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. One work was the 1944 string trio written by Gideon Klein which is believed to be the last piece of music he wrote while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp. The rest was an impressive bounty of 21st century composers, with a solid representation by female composers. For example, Clarice Assad, and Gabriela Lena Frank had works on two concerts while Jessie Montgomery had one. There were several premieres of various nature, including world premieres, North American premiere and Utah premieres.
Songs of Gratitude set the season tone perfectly last fall, representing NOVA’s first live concert since before the pandemic. Among the highlights were Brittany J. Green’s …to experience life, scored for trumpet, piano, percussion, and live electronics, which has a palpable cinematic feel that is gratifying in evoking its own array of intimate meditative images. Claudia Assad’s Metamorfose, a work for viola and piano, was sensitively attuned to the difficult yet healthful reconciliation about a son’s grief over the loss of his mother. The performance unquestionably represented the imagery of the critical stage of metamorphosis in which a butterfly eventually emerges from the chrysalis.
Songs of Life was delightful in its quick spirited pace of works emphasizing memories, playfulness, joys and the spontaneities of life. Two Utah works added a musical festival flair to the event. Devin Maxwell’s 2014 Git Along Little Dogies used samples from Woody Guthrie’s cover of the classic Roy Rogers song in a perfect ensemble version that encapsulates what it means to envision the Old West in a new light. Neil Thornock’s 2012 Blur, performed by Utah Symphony percussionists Eric Hopkins and Keith Carrick, made for a delicious standoff between xylophone and vibraphone, along with a few objects to boot for added effects. There were many gifts in this concert from the exceptional performance of Alfred Schnittke’s Serenade to the harpist’s showcase in Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro and Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2010 Milagros (Miracles), a work that has a Bartókian flavor but emanates from the composer’s Peruvian heritage. The Fry Street Quartet gave a splendid reading to the work’s eight movements.
The 2022 segment of the season opened with Songs of Perseverance that included the Utah premiere of Wang Lu’s Rates of Extinction for solo piano, handled beautifully by Kimi Kawashima. The 2016 work comprises five short movements, which incorporate polyrhythmic layers to signify the heartbeats associated with the accelerating number of species that have gone extinct in recent years as well as the effects of human-made development. Fry Street Quartet has committed a good share of its artistic mission to issues surrounding environmental preservation and conservation, as well as the urgent concerns of climate change and water resources.
Songs of Play brought notable premieres to Salt Lake City — Pearl, a sonata for violin and piano, by Stephanie Ann Boyd and Counterplay by Utah composer Luke Dahn, for trombone and piano. Pearl is a shimmering present for the violin and Madeline Adkins, Utah Symphony concertmaster, along with pianist Viktor Valkov, unwrapped all of the gems in this package. Dahn’s Counterplay, featuring Mark Davidson, Utah Symphony’s principal trombonist, and Valkov, blended march features and a deft hand of counterpoint that became a musical version of a chess game.
And the bonus, the sole gallery concert at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, emphasized how NOVA in recent years has turned its attention to British composers, who historically have not been represented in the repertoire. The Fry Street Quartet has carved out just as strong a reputation for its interpretation of works by Benjamin Britten as it has for Bartók. The concert also included the season’s only two works representing the period before the 18th century with composers John Dowland and Henry Purcell. As summarized in The Utah Review, judging by the performance and a solid welcome by audiences, the case for Britten as one of the greatest 20th century composers (and perhaps the best candidate from the period for a permanent spot in the repertoire) was made with impressive results.
The Songs theme has fortified NOVA’s brand of programming that encourages pairings of composers, styles and musical philosophies, which epitomize an intellectually stimulating well-rounded diet for lovers of music who enjoy not only the familiar staples but also are willing to sample from offerings of what truly is a golden age of cross-fertilization of musical expression.
For tickets and more information, see the NOVA website.