SONiC Festival – Camerata Aberta at Americas Society

Camerata Aberta boasts some of São Paulo’s most dedicated musicians. Seven of the group’s sixteen members were in attendance at this Oct. 18th concert. The ensemble is dedicated to premiering works of Brazilian composers as well as accepted concert music standards of the 20th and 21st century. Americas Society’s performance hall is like a grand 19th century Viennese salon, but the space was not at all anachronistic with the contemporary program; rather, it provided the dignified atmosphere demanded by the artists’ circumspect exploration of timbre on conventional instruments.

Camerata Aberta – Photo courtesy of the artists

The World Premiere of Caminantes III, a trombone / bass duet by Igor Leão Maia, began with the audience wondering, “Are they tuning, or has the piece begun?” Such is the effect of indolent quarter-tones drawn out over time. The muted trombone, sliding up and down between indeterminate pitches, seemed to channel the schoolteacher from the Charlie Brown animated series. After thus eschewing stable pitches, the duo cadenced on a gentle perfect fifth. A frenzy of 16th notes suddenly took off, down chutes and up ladders, stopping only for the instrumentalists to employ growls, and the trombone producing interference from two out-of-sync sound waves. The cadence this time was breath blown quietly through the trombone.

Tatiana Catanzaro’s Kristallklavierexplosionsschattensplitter (not a misprint) for solo piano, opened its US Premiere with tinkling in the high register, like the creaking beams of an ancient dollhouse. Pianist Lidia Bazarian soon whacked the bass strings and quickly strummed the mid-range strings. It is the kind of piece to make you wonder, ‘what came first: the horror movie, or the music often associated with this film genre?’ Ejaculatory glimmers in the highest register made sense of the accompanying poem in the program notes: “diffracted light / inside out / …into tiny little pieces”

In composing Estudo sobre os arrependimentos de Velázquez, Marcílio Onofre was inspired by the painter’s “pentimenti: mistakes… that the artist himself fixed with a thin layer of paint, which were subsequently marred by the passing of time, revealing the original brush strokes.” It is a common refrain among new music audiences: “How can one tell if they’re hitting the right notes?” What better way for an artist to bare his soul, though, than this conscious embrace of ‘error’? The trumpet, trombone, viola, bass, and piano join in episodes of timbral consensus, separated by pregnant silences, perhaps the better to digest these “mistakes.” This establishes the form of the piece. Bass drum thunder introduces a second section, and the piece ends on a wood block trill which crescendos as in a tense moment before a kung fu battle.

João Victor Bota composed Zênite for solo viola as a tribute to the Brazilian composer Almeida Prado. Violist Peter Pas began with a dyad exploration, of which the major 7th formed the median. Perfect 5ths were effected by harmonics. A solo line, sul ponticello, recalled the romanticism of Alban Berg. An extremely heavy mute was installed to create the thinnest of string sounds, creating another character entirely, perhaps a wizened elder warning the reckless, romantic youth. Harmonics were then employed to create yet another character, a maiden emitting a patter of perfect fifths and a rising arpeggio of airy simplicity. But the youth returns with a tantrum of dyads anchored on the same stubborn pedal tone.

Valéria Bonafé’s Lan uses “atmospheres” to explore a sonic close-up of a seemingly “static universe.” Muted trumpet and trombone outline a tri-tone, which crescendos while the pianist plays the alchemist, transforming light into sound, bringing with it all of its refractions and decay. Bassist Pedro Gadelha supplies the deep penetrating OM. The piece indeed avoids a sense of forward motion, choosing instead to hang like a mobile, its suspended elemental curios bumping inevitably against each other in the imperceptible cosmic wind.

If any audience members came to this concert expecting to hear samba, then they were perhaps somewhat rewarded for staying until the end, as the NYC Premiere of Clint Needham’s Color Study was a jazzy number and a closer with pulse. Here was the densest fabric of the night; no more patient exploration of timbre, just chugging, brassy syncopations. Ken Thomson blew bird-calls on the alto saxophone and was answered by complex chords, resigned in their consonance but pointing forward toward a more complete resolution. Charles Augusto’s punchy bass-snare percussion groove drove the closing section, definitely the fight scene of the program – think the “POW!” and “WHAM!” form Batman comics.

Camerata Aberta’s dedication to Brazilian composers should not be mistaken for an adherence to any Brazilian style or genre. Indeed, the composers on this SONiC program explore idiosyncrasies of timbre and musical space that can only be realized through intense artistic introspection. The performers’ skill in manipulating the outer boundaries of their instruments’ color palettes was remarkable. Many lesser performers attempting such experimentation would run the risk of presenting a pedantic exercise in extended technique, but Camerata Aberta was able to imbue the performance with contemplative nuance and aesthetic sophistication.

Rob Wendt is a pianist / composer / music educator living in Astoria, NY. You can follow him on twitter: @RobWendt