Anyone who considers classical music an antiquarian art form devoted solely to the works of dead white European males should pay close attention to the Alias Chamber Ensemble's next concert. There's hardly a dead guy to be found anywhere on the group's program.
Instead, Alias will lavish attention on some of America's most accomplished contemporary women composers. This Tuesday's concert at the Blair School of Music's Turner Recital Hall will open with a new arrangement of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw's Cantico delle creature. Alias will also perform string quartets by Jennifer Higdon, another Pulitzer winner, and Margaret Brouwer. The music of Kenji Bunch and Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (the program's token dead guy) will round out the program.
"In this day and age, it shouldn't seem strange to find the music of three women composers at a classical concert," says Alias cellist Matt Walker. "But a lot of people are still surprised when they hear about our program."
Actually, the person who would probably be the most astonished to find her music on a prestigious program is Shaw. In April, the 30-year-old Princeton University doctoral student became the youngest person in history to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. The award came as a total shock.
She told The New York Times that the day the prize was announced, she was walking in a park when emails and phone calls started coming in from friends congratulating her on the award. Thinking she was having a "psychotic break," she called her father, who confirmed that she had indeed won. Shaw had received her bachelor's and master's degrees in violin performance and was still having a hard time thinking of herself as a composer.
The audience that hears Shaw's Cantico delle creature on Tuesday won't have the same trouble. Arranged for mezzo soprano, violin, baroque cello and piano, the piece sets to music a 13th century poem attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. The poem is a celebration of nature and the Creator, and Shaw has turned it into a song that is lyrical and luminous. "There's a lot of word painting that goes on in this music," says violinist Zeneba Bowers, Alias' artistic director. "The music is beautifully spontaneous."
Higdon composed her An Exaltation of Larks for the Lark String Quartet in 2005. Lasting 16 minutes and arranged in one movement, this quartet lives up to its name, beginning with expectantly quiet music that becomes increasingly ecstatic and frenetic as it progresses. Brouwer's Demeter Prelude, a one-movement quartet lasting eight minutes, features busy — even jittery — string music inspired by the Greek goddess Persephone's search for her daughter, Demeter.
Nashville dance fans got to hear some of Bunch's Suite for Viola and Piano during the Nashville Ballet's performance of Macbeth in May. Paul Vasterling, the ballet's artistic director, used Bunch's chamber music as the basis of his choreography. Bunch's viola music is extremely difficult to play, but when performed persuasively it comes across as urgent as a Shakespearean soliloquy.
Alias' penchant for playing contemporary music — the group has presented more than a dozen world premieres — has led many to think of it as a new music ensemble. In fact, Alias also plays a lot early music. Pandolfi Mealli's Sonata for Violin and Continuo (1660), which is on Tuesday's program, is exactly the kind of music Bowers likes to play. "I've never enjoyed playing Romantic showpieces, which seem to be screaming out, 'Hey, look what I can do,' " she says. "I prefer the peaceful purity of early music."