San Miguel Chapel, May 12
Founded in 2002, Chatter has grown into a busy enterprise mostly devoted to performing chamber music in Albuquerque. Three of its stalwart members — violinist David Felberg (who co-founded the group), violist Shanti Randall, and cellist James Holland — have coalesced into a self-standing sub-ensemble as the Chatter Trio, and they paid a visit to Santa Fe on May 12 for a recital in the historic San Miguel Chapel.
The group introduced itself through the supreme work of the string trio medium, Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat major (K. 563). The work’s name may seem to imply lighthearted triviality — the Italian divertire means “to amuse” — but in fact this is a serious masterwork that happens to follow the form of a standard divertimento. That means that extra minuets (in this case, two) are interlaced among the usual four movements one would expect to encounter in, say, a Classical string quartet, and the result is the longest of all Mozart’s chamber compositions. The Chatter players kept it alive throughout its six movements. They were exceptionally adept in their treatment of rhythm. Many soloists and small ensembles come up short in that department, particularly by cutting short the rest at the end of phrases and rushing on to the next idea. The Chatter Trio, however, gave every rest its full and proper duration and emphasis. Perhaps it seems a backhanded compliment to single out the moments when the group was not actually playing, but I don’t mean it in that way. I mean instead that during the pulses when Mozart inhaled rather than exhaled, the group did not stop making music.
The musicians proved generally extroverted in their approach. As they move ahead, they might focus on expanding their dynamic range on the soft end of the spectrum, which would pay particular dividends when playing in a small and lively space. Now and again, the viola was overly prominent in the sonic mix, at least partly due to the chapel’s particular acoustic. Still, you can hardly begrudge a violist for letting loose in a piece like this, given the subservient role that instrument must often play. Randall filled the first Trio of the second Minuet with particular delight. The group reached its pinnacle in the fourth movement, a set of Andante variations in which they energized the instrumental texture through unflagging attention to details of balance and timbre.
The second half of the concert featured two contemporary works. Vision Mantra, composed in 2009 by Marcos Balter (a Brazilian living in Chicago), was inspired by the soaring decorative ceiling of the Chicago Cultural Center. That translated into prismatic music in which the three instruments emitted vaporous sounds in simultaneous bursts, rather than contrapuntally, as if they were flinging handfuls of fairy dust. Once one started to notice Stravinskyian sounds, they emerged quite a lot from the work’s surface, particularly recalling Petrushka and the Three Pieces for String Quartet. The piece had a happy mien and filled its six minutes pleasantly.
More substantial was Companion Guide to Rome, by Andrew Norman, who has been rising quickly through the ranks of American composers under forty. In 2017, he both won the Grawemeyer Award and was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year — notable feathers in his cap. A recipient of the Rome Prize about a decade ago, Norman crafted each of the nine movements of this half-hour piece to illustrate (or otherwise represent) a different church in the Eternal City. It opens with take-no-prisoners vehemence that recalls George Crumb’s string quartet Black Angels — in this case, apparently having to do with the mortifications and ecstatic visions of St. Teresa (here just “Teresa,” since Norman is on a casual first-name basis with his saints). Indeed, there is something Crumb-like about this cycle as a whole, though without the incantatory quality one might expect from that composer. The movements employ a number of extended string-playing techniques, which are summoned up selectively for emotional effect. Harmonics and whistle-tones are all over the place. So are microtonal shadings of pitches, which sometimes sneak through the “in between” spaces in chord progressions. The instrumental effects endow each movement with its own flavor: a shuddering viola (in “Susanna”), violin-cello interactions that suggest bell-ringing (in “Pietro”), deep bowing of unctuous weightiness (in “Lorenzo”), the violin’s fluty lyricism (in “Cecilia,” played by Felberg with his back to the audience). But on the whole it is a captivating work, an emotionally intense entry in the catalogue of a composer who does not shy away from complexity.
Chatter Trio brought seriousness of purpose and fine musical insight to all three works. Music lovers will look forward to watching this New Mexico group go on growing as they work through the substantial but underrepresented corpus of music for their ensemble.