The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Michael Kellerman, February 18, 2011, Arts

UT New Music Ensemble

Bates Recital Hall

Feb. 15

It's rare in classical performance these days that a focus is drawn entirely to freshly written work. Such was the case Tuesday night, as the University of Texas' New Music Ensemble featured the world premiere of two chamber pieces by UT composition students,

a tone poem of a third up-and-comer, and a celebrated string quartet by NME Director Dan Welcher.

The New Music Ensemble brings together some of the finest students at the ever-ascendant Butler School of Music to explore the musical contributions of the last quarter century. Welcher, among the world's most frequently performed living composers, created the NME in 1978 and has built it into one of the best groups of its kind in the nation.

First on the program was UT student Ian Dicke's "Assembly Lines," inspired by the inner workings of early automobile factories. Dicke's piece roared to life in a fury of syncopated machination, displaying an impressive blend of texture throughout, with enigmatic, mystical moments interspersed among the churning rhythmic material. By the time the piece achieved its conclusion with a memorable smack of sound, the audience was thrilled to reward the young composer with more than a few bravos.

Student composer Joshua Shank's "Flocking Music" opened the program's second half. Pensive and pastoral, the cinematic piece floated in the hall, ultimately casting a sweet spell over the audience.

Much credit is due the ensemble's fine chamber musicians, all of whom performed with great artistry and confidence. In Dan Visconti's tone poem "Low Country Haze," which opened with a raw, primordial sound that evolved to a Copland-inspired peak, each player excelled as both soloist and accompanist – with a special shout-out to clarinetist Yevgeniy Reznik and flutist Daniel Velasco, whose round, gorgeous sounds were particularly memorable.

To close the first half of the program, members of the Aeolus Quartet, UT's graduate quartet-in-residence, presented Welcher's String Quartet #3, nicknamed "Cassatt" after American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who inspired it. The first movement introduced the primary melodic material, based on the painter's name, which wove itself throughout the piece. In the second, inspired by the painting At the Opera, Welcher told the imagined story of the painting's subjects, creating an oscillating emotional landscape that effectively explored the painting's mystery, drawing the listener in and out of the scene. In the final movement, Welcher depicted Cassatt's imminent loss of sight in sound, employing diffusion and dissonance to signify sensory erosion. It was an evocative and somber piece, expertly performed by the Aeolus.

The night's only stumble came with Luciano Berio's Folk Songs, 11 short pieces for a vocalist and chamber orchestra representing a smorgasbord of cultures and colors. Mezzo-soprano Shaunna Shandro was glorious in moments that called on her upper register, showing obvious operatic talent in "Loosin Yelav" and "La Donna Ideale." Unfortunately, Berio set much of the music in a lower range; Shandro lacked the crisp, assertive tone required to convey these songs successfully. The result was a mixed bag and an unfortunate closer for the otherwise spot-on concert.

One of Austin's hidden gems, the UT New Music Ensemble fits well into the cultural fabric of a city renowned for its entrepreneurial, youthful spirit and deserves a wider audience. For those fans gathered in Bates Recital Hall, me among them, the performance was a memorable treat.

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