Any given concert by the Relāche Ensemble is bound to leave some thrilled
and others puzzled. The group taps so many streams of musical thought: A
program that goes deeply into progressive jazz might leave modernists feeling
as if they dropped in from the wrong planet, and vice versa.
That isn't necessarily a negative comment on quality. But happily, this
weekend's conclusion to the Relāche season at the Philadelphia Ethical Society
transcended any number of aural barriers. And that is a comment on quality.
The title of the program, "City Shimmer With Urban Underbelly," conjures
images of those albino alligators said to inhabit the sewers of New York
(a myth given "legs" by the Thomas Pynchon novel V). But blessedly,
the program was typical Relāche, presenting music that refers to what's commonly
heard blaring out of SUVs on South Street but using it in a much more concentrated
The program's world premiere, Lydian Variations by Albany-born,
Eastman School of Music-educated Shafer Mahoney, is based on a scale that
the composer says is the backbone of jazz - and in any case, encourages all
sorts of unexpected musical sidesteps. The piece is written with a let's-try-everything
attitude, which means numerous instrumental configurations were exhaustively
but not exhaustingly explored with urgency and concision. It was dazzling,
and this is from someone who avoids weekends on South Street at all costs.
Tim Grady's Dark Matter and Erling Wold's Close played well off each other as compositional opposites. Dark Matter
had a soul-searching viola solo interrupted, bashed and mowed down by any
number of violent musical events - all effective - while Close, a
dance score, operated within highly atmospheric, homogeneous textures unfolding
over layers of rhythmically infectious ostinatos that giddily recall John
Adams' The Chairman Dances.
New York downtowner Eve Beglarian was represented by two pieces that left
you alternately inspired and discouraged by acts of compositional piggy-backing.
The irreverent cleverness of her neomedieval works is inviting, but her Machaut Ą Gogo,
a rap-ish version of a chanson by the 14th-century composer Guillaume de
Machaut, illuminated nothing in either century it referenced. It seemed like
cleverness for its own sake.
However, the William Blake-inspired Marriage of Heaven and Hell was
winningly eventful more for Beglarian's contribution than Blake's, cunningly
built over dance-club rhythms that, if actually danced to, are so asymmetrical
as to leave you with a twisted ankle.