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The Concerts@First series is rapidly evolving into a legitimate forum for artistic expression in the Atlanta classical scene. Such was the case on the afternoon of November 14 when the Atlanta Chamber Players — clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez, violinists Helen Hwaya Kim and John Meisner, violist Catherine Lynn, cellist Brad Ritchie and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen — assembled for a performance that covered a wide array of modern composers before closing with a nod to the masters in the form of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60.

It is always a joy to critique the work of contemporary composers; it affords the opportunity to discuss the merits of the work itself, something that is rarely relevant when evaluating performances of composers already ensconced in the classical canon. Still, that grand pantheon of classical masters looms large and one cannot help but see modern works beneath the sprawling shadow it casts. In light of the afternoon’s closing foray into Brahms, the question of how the new works would fare against its grandeur was invariably forced to the forefront.

The afternoon commenced with “Peace,” a short work by Jessie Montgomery. It is a largely ambient, often exploratory work that has the piano cascading gently around a clarinet that stabs intermittently at the gentle chaos with warm bouts of melancholy. This duet becomes a mellow but nevertheless engaging dialogue between two equally thoughtful voices.

It is worth noting the technical acumen of Alcides Rodriguez, whose impeccable tone and deft command of the clarinet allow him to jump up and grab notes in the instrument’s upper register that would be reduced to squeaks and squawks in the hands of a lesser player. The end result was a piece that exemplifies that capacity for the many tonal layers of the classical medium to capture conflicting emotions and subtleties that seem to elude verbal language.

The second piece, “Dies Irie” arose, curiously, from composer Kenji Bunch’s accidental misspelling of the more common “Dies Irae,” (“Day of Wrath”) with the variant “Irie” actually being a Jamaican Patwah expression meaning “everything is going to be okay.” From that foundation, Bunch conjures a utopian vision of pastoral calm and deep spiritual rejuvenation. It was easily the most accessible of the new pieces on display and the only one of the set that works well as a stand-alone piece without introductory explanation.

On the heels of Bunch’s uplifting work came Jennifer Higdon’s “Southern Harmony,” a three-part exploration of the Southern United States in tonal form. Part one, “Sof Summers,” carries on the pastoral tone laid down by “Dies Irae” but with a more uncertain, wistful tone. The violin’s tonality is crucial to the atmosphere of the piece with just the right element of roughness necessary to capture the nasal twang of Southern musical stylings. Here violinist Helen Hwaya Kim shined.

The second movement, “Reel Time,” feels deeply influenced by Aaron Copland and his penchant for melding classical rigors with the panache of Americana. Closing segment “Gentle Waltz” feels like a melding of the two, culminating in a compact tour de force of American folk stylings given the breadth and width of the classical ensemble — another high watermark for the afternoon.

The final piece of the four originals, Benjamin Krause’s “Notes From the Inside,” won the 2021 Rapido! national composing competition, which is sponsored by the Atlanta Chamber Players and the Antinori Foundation. Kraus was given the opportunity to expand his original five-minute piece for this premiere.

So often in the world of classical music the word “modern” is secret code for “no melody” and young contemporary composers eager to shed what they view as outmoded constraints and stuffy traditionalism. The result, far too often, are works that feel directionless and pondering — more interested in being avant-garde for its own sake rather than evolving classical music’s already vast spectrum of melodic and harmonic possibilities.

Krause’s original piece revealed tremendous promise. But the completed work, while showing bursts of real promise, seemed directionless. “Clockwork” begins the cycle with a sort of jaunty playfulness akin to a Danny Elfman score and the clarinet interjects with background runs reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.” But the piece feels unwilling to commit to the development of an actual theme.

That vexing sense of reticence continues throughout “Indoor Games” which adds a layer of unfocused delirium to the proceedings. Things don’t fare much better until the fifth segment, “Diversions,” when Krause finally capitalized on a capacity for melody that he previously seemed determined to stifle. Krause’s music is at times absorbing and compelling, yet his voice is not yet fully formed.

The closing piece — occupying the afternoon’s entire second half — was Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60. If the previous composers had all sounded like carefree children at play, Brahms was the stern and solemn daycare monitor whose dark, brooding nature cast fear in the hearts of the youth. Even in the smaller ensemble his ability to weave thick, deep penetrating melodies throughout arresting chordal patterns is instantly and eternally apparent.

Closing with Brahms in this manner was an interesting choice. His always dark and passionate style is  emblematic of a particular aspect of the classical masters that often seems to elude the contemporaries: a willingness to commit not only to the hard and demanding task of composing a compelling melody, but fully developing one that digs deep into the human soul and commanding the very spirit to bend to its emotional will.

By contrast, the modern works on display were indicative of an odd tendency among contemporary composers to focus on matters that are bright, lighthearted and detached from the emotional depths of the human condition. Certainly they are engaging and enjoyable — even sublime in their better moments — but in the rush to appear vanguard they seem to lose interest in delivering truly effective melodies. Until a new champion arises to achieve that lofty goal, modern classical composition always struggle to find composers who can stand alongside the increasingly distant masters.

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Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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