Classical Concert Review: Radius Ensemble — A Vivid Musical Journey, Filled with Solace and Grandeur

By Aaron Keebaugh

The stormy exuberance of Debussy’s Piano Trio in G major inspired one of the many highlights of this mostly auspicious night.

Radius Ensemble in action last Thursday night. Photo: Gül Deniz Korkusuz

Charles Shadle’s Chahta Aiasha (Choctaw Places) may reflect the wide-open spaces of the composer’s native Oklahoma. Yet its pastoral serenity, expressed through oboe, English horn, and strings, offers a sobering reminder of the forced removal of Native Americans from their southeastern homelands by the US government in the 1830s.

For Shadle, a member of the Choctaw nation, that event lingers in cultural memory, and Chahta Aiasha is an homage to resilience as much as an expression of loss. Thursday night at Pickman Hall, the Radius Ensemble revealed the work’s solace and grandeur alongside music by Eric Ewazen, Judith Weir, and Claude Debussy.

Like Shadle’s Oklahoma Choctaw Cycle and Choctaw Animals, Chahta Aiasha draws upon native dance and singing without directly quoting folk sources. It is a spacious canvas, with an organic form that unfolds glacially over 24 minutes. Shadle’s harmonic language is chromatic while remaining light on dissonance, the lines blending in shimmering textures.

The program notes do not pinpoint any specific landscape this music is supposed to suggest. But the strings’ opening play of wide intervallic leaps depict the Midwestern plains without resorting to cliché. Much of this music walks the wire between conversation and conflict. Jennifer Montbach’s oboe provides mournful counterbalance to string figures that culminate in a brisk dance. After an angular cadenza, the musicians find a warm consensus, anchored by the sweet tones of Montbach’s English horn. All convey quiet peace in the concluding bars.

Thursday’s sensitive performance made a compelling case for Shadle’s score.

Ewazen’s Roaring Fork offered complementary verve and vitality. This rollicking piece for wind quintet depicts an eight-mile hike along Buckskin Pass in Colorado. The composer paints a musical landscape by channeling the nimble energy of Stravinsky and Hindemith, which works well with his customary lyricism.

The Radius musicians took listeners on a vivid musical journey. “Whitewater Rapids” burbled, trickled, and coursed like its eponymous body of water. The players revealed the lush splendors of “Columbines,” and they rendered the fanfares of “At the Summit” with vigor.

Judith Weir’s Wake Your Wild Voice offered soulful reflection. This work for bassoon and cello, inspired by a poem by Sir Walter Scott, unfolds freely: bassoon in stuttering gestures that flower into long statements, the cello in drones and open intervals. Weir makes the most from such simple elements. The melodic fragments hint at lyricism, like music waiting to be born.

Throughout, bassoonist Adrian Morejon played with panache, while cellist Miriam Bolkosky was a steady, even stalwart musical presence.

The concert opened with Debussy’s Piano Trio in G major. Rather than the shimmering sonorities that would come to define his mature works, this trio, written by an 18-year-old Debussy, bears the imprint of French romanticism. Rich melodies recall both Fauré and Saint-Saëns. Yet its taut form and gentle wit reveal a mind well trained in the classics.

Thursday’s reading, however, was skittish, with violinist Yumi Okada, cellist Bolkosky, and pianist Yoko Hagino taking time to find their footing with balance and blend. The strings’ slight grain and sharp-edged sound failed to reveal the full richness of the opening movement.

But things fared better from there. The second movement pizzicatos brought humor and zest, and the long lines of the Andante, supported by Hagino’s left-hand passages, carried palpable weight and darkness. That intensity suited the finale, its stormy exuberance one of the many highlights of this mostly auspicious night.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

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