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Weekend concerts included Bach, Baker, Abrahamsen, snowy thoughts

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Snow-theme program from SONAR new music ensemble offered lots of cool sounds.

The weekend's musical activity included blasts of the past and the present. A lot of snow, too -- not the literal kind involving flakes from the sky, but a kind of existential immersion in snowy, wintry thoughts.

A connective link between the two concerts I heard was provided by good old Bach.

Pro Musica Rara pulled out several of that composer's most beloved works to form its version of a pre-game show, the annual SuperBach Sunday program. SONAR, the highly creative new music ensemble, devoted the bulk of its concert to the big, Bach-inspired chamber work "Schnee" ("Snow") from 2008 by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen.

SONAR offered another from-baroque-to-now experience to go with "Schnee" -- Robert A. Baker's new violin concerto, "...and wondrous strange snow," which gives a nod to the Winter concerto of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"

Leave it to SONAR to find two substantive, challenging pieces that could be neatly packaged under a freshly marketable title: "Frozen." I felt nearly frozen myself Friday night at the Theatre Project, where heating tends to be elusive, but I enjoyed to cool music-making. (A projection of falling snow provided a nice little backdrop to the presentation.) 

The concerto, written for the group and its founding artistic director, violinist Colin Sorgi, makes for an intriguing tone poem, told largely in long-held tones and quizzical phrases.

With a title from Shakespeare and something of the sound world from the "Four Seasons" -- string orchestra and keyboard (piano instead of harpsichord), plus percussion -- Baker's subtle score has its share of telling silences and shudders. The latter recall the shivery motives that pop up in Vivaldi's work, used here to equally coloristic effect.

In this premiere performance, conducted by the composer, Sorgi and his colleagues offered clean, nuanced playing.

Abrahamsen's hour-long "Schnee" is imbued with reflections on Bach's canons and winter (the piece contains such indications as "icy"). It is scored for trios of strings and winds, two pianos and exceedingly understated percussion -- a single, soft gong stroke becomes almost seismic in this context. 

The complex piece owes a little something to minimalism, but the pulsations and reiterations here seem connected to a realm all its own, where time is suspended, tonality diffused. Whispery effects from the strings and eerie, high pitches from the winds are part of the experience; so are de-tuning passages . The net result suggests a series of sonic snowflakes, at once similar and unique.

The SONAR musicians, again conducted by Baker, did expressive, generally polished work.

On Sunday afternoon, Pro Musica Rara drew a good-sized house to Towson University's Center for the Arts, part of the ensemble's 40th season. With only eight instrumentalists on hand, some of the richness of Bach's music could not be summoned, but the spirit always materialized.

In the D minor Concerto for Two Violins, soloists Greg Mulligan and Ivan Stefanovic sounded tightly matched in tone, technique and temperament; they tapped into the Largo's lyrical eloquence quite stylishly. They enjoyed supple support throughout from their colleagues, especially in the finale, which took flight from the first notes and remained delectably airborne.

The A minor Triple Concerto featured Stefanovic, flutist Sara Nichols and harpsichordist Dongsok Shin; their phrasing in the Adagio emerged with particular gracefulness. A rhythmic blip or two aside, the outer movements sparkled.

There was a jaunty, mostly taut account of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5; Shin dispatched the famous first movement cadenza with terrific abandon (a non-classical audience would have broken into applause).

For "Ich habe genug," the poignant cantata about welcoming death when it comes, soprano Ah Young Hong joined the ensemble. She brought her customary refinement of tone and phrase to the assignment, reaching a communicative peak in her sweetly sculpted singing of the "Schlummert ein" aria.

Her low notes could have used greater weight, the concluding coloratura flurries a little more smoothness. For that matter, the instrumentalists could have produced a wider gradation of dynamics along the way. But, on balance, this was a very effective close to a winning concert.

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