Review: Atlanta Chamber Players premiere Nabors’ 7 Dances

Mark Gresham | 20 NOV 2019

On Tuesday evening, the Atlanta Chamber Players returned to one of their more interesting, favorite venues, the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, to perform an engaging concert of engaging music by a pair of living American composers, Jennifer Higdon and Brian Raphael Nabors, as well as a significant chamber work work by the too-often overlooked Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi.

The program opened with Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio, a two movement work in which she attempts to address the question (in her words), “Can music reflect colors and can colors be reflected in music?” –“pale yellow” in the first movement and “fiery red” in the second. Her stated fascination with “the connection between painting and music” surely has its origins when she was growing up in Atlanta where her father was an instructor at the old Atlanta College of arts at the social environment of those first 10 years were spent in the social milieu of visual arts and artists. No wonder she will “often picture colors [of sound] as if I were spreading them on a canvas.”

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The slow first movement was contemplative, with a kind of texture and harmonic language that hearkened back to a particular feeling that hearkens back to a nearly forgotten generation of American classical music of the 1940s and 50s, and if “pale yellow” then perhaps one evoking amber waves of rolling wheat fields, bathed in a gentle autumn sun. The second, a contrasting movement of energy and forward momentum. Higdon’s Piano Trio was engagingly performed by violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, cellist Brad Ritchie and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen.

Then came the program’s much-anticipated centerpiece, the world premiere of 7 Dances by national Rapido! Composition Contest winner Brian Raphael Nabors (b. 1991). The suite is the result of the commission to expand upon his contest winning Rapido! Entry, 3 Dances, to which he added four new movements. The diverse suite of dances included a fast tango, slow foxtrot, a hip-hop groove, a waltz, salsa, a slow march (almost funereal in an almost Rachmaninoff-like kind of way) and hoedown.

Composer Brian Nabors with flutist Todd Skitch, clarinetist Ted Gurch and cellist Brad Ritchie. (credit: Greg Mooney)

Composer Brian Nabors with flutist Todd Skitch, clarinetist Ted Gurch and cellist Brad Ritchie. (credit: Greg Mooney)

Because of the scoring required by the contest – flute, clarinet and cello (played by Todd Skitch, Ted Gurch and Brad Ritchie), Nabors took some very personal twists on each of these, as the combination at times required finding new musical approaches to address each genre – for example, not your typical band for hip-hop. But this suite pays delightful homage to wealth of diverse musical influences on Nabors and should soon begin to find performances beyond the handful that result directly from the Rapido! Win.

Important to note that this was only the first of two world premieres that were the the consequence of Rapido!. Beginning tonight, and twice more this weekend, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will premiere Nabors new orchestral work, Onward, the second commissioned work to emerge from the grand prize package.

🎧 Read EarRelevant’s recent article about Nabors and listen to his audio interview with John Lemley here.

The concert closed with the Sextet, Op. 37 of Hungarian composer, conductor and pianist Ernst von Dohnányi (the Germanized version of his Hungarian name, Ernő Dohnányi). Written in 1935 and scored for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello, and piano, the Sextet is the last of Dohnányi’s large scale chamber works. Its style is firmly rooted in the 19th century, especially the first and third of its four movements, but you can hear glimmers of 20th-century harmonies here and there in a similar manner as in the music of Rachmaninoff.

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Coming as it did in the years leading up to World War II, Dohnányi was mostly conservative, nut he was aware of social stresses of Europe and knew the music of his day, including what jazz could be heard in Budapest. These influences can be heard respectively in the second and fourth movements. And yet, in contrast with his fellow Hungarian, Béla Bartók, he as neither a modernist nor influenced by folk music or nationalist sentiments. What counts for Dohnányi was beauty and elegance, and those still do count in art for their own sake — even in our own era where social statement seems so much more demanded from artists of all stripes.

Though not in vogue in his own day, thankfully, classical performers today are are taking the time to re-examine Dohnányi’s music and play it more. The Sextet, in a moving performance by violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, violist Catherine Lynn, cellist Brad Ritchie, clarinetist Ted Gurch, hornist Brice Andrus and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen, which proved an excellent, full-bodied conclusion to Tuesday’s concert. ■