Review: Matthew Welch Offers Ethereal Chamber Music at the Stone

From left, Jacob Ashworth, John Popham, Lee Dionne, Gleb Kanasevich and Doug Perry performing Matthew Welch’s compositions at the Stone. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

From left, Jacob Ashworth, John Popham, Lee Dionne, Gleb Kanasevich and Doug Perry performing Matthew Welch’s compositions at the Stone. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

The New York Times
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM
DEC. 9, 2015

From left, Jacob Ashworth, John Popham, Lee Dionne, Gleb Kanasevich and Doug Perry performing Matthew Welch’s compositions at the Stone. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

The music of Matthew Welch, who began a weeklong residency at the Stone on Tuesday, draws on a world of influences. His opening set, performed by the ensemble Cantata Profana, packed in references to Highland bagpipes, Balinese funerary rites, Minimalism, Borges, Beckett and Buddha. Yet much of the resulting chamber music is exquisitely ethereal, made up of delicate, transparent textures that hum with expressive tension. If Mr. Welch were a chef, he’d be the kind who pushes the boundaries of molecular gastronomy, transforming earthy ingredients into translucent beads of pure flavor.

Take “Ulrikke,” inspired by a Borges short story, for instance. It is a work for cello (here played by John Popham) and percussion (Doug Perry) in which, as Mr. Welch described it in opening remarks, “Bagpipe lamentation and Balinese cremation music elope.” Bagpipes are famously loud and piercing; gamelans are known to take up lots of space. Here, each was represented impressionistically, the gamelan’s shimmering sound evoked by a vibraphone, its complex but purposeful rhythms by a marimba. There appeared to be echoes of bagpipe music hidden amid the flickering harmonics played by Mr. Popham at the opening of the work; later phrases blended a whiff of Scottish folk music with a stately Baroque gait.

Despite its Scottish name, “A Bhoilich,” too, revealed only the faintest reminiscence of Highland music, this time sublimated into quiet notes played on a clarinet (Gleb Kanasevich), vibraphone and piano (Dan Schlosberg) in overlapping ripples of sound. In “… with regard to harmony …” the violinist Jacob Ashworth produced an unhurried sequence of tremulously sustained notes that prompted equally quiet, fragile responses — often single notes — from the guitarist Arash Noori and Mr. Schlosberg at the piano.

Music so sparse can be difficult to pull off in a performance space like the Stone, on a corner of the Lower East Side where traffic noise, laughter and sidewalk conversations filter in from outside. It’s a testament to the skill and concentration of the musicians that the audience was spellbound.

Mr. Welch’s interests in Minimalism and rock music came through in two works, “The Secret Labyrinth of Ts’ui Pen,” in which a mixed instrumental ensemble repeats wavelike motifs that gradually grow more exuberant, and “Dhammapada Cantata,” given its premiere on Tuesday.

Based on Buddhist texts and featuring a driving score and declamatory vocals by two amplified singers, the baritone John Taylor Ward and the mezzo Kate Maroney, “Dhammapada Cantata” is strongly reminiscent of some of Philip Glass’s music. The performers gave it a vibrant and colorful reading.

After the subtlety of the instrumental chamber works, this was a radical shift in energy. Coming performances of Mr. Welch’s music this week will show more of this side of his output, as well as a full gamelan and Mr. Welch himself on the bagpipes. But I found myself wishing for more of his ultra-refined, globally sourced chamber music.

Matthew Welch is in residence through Sunday at the Stone, Avenue C and Second Street, Manhattan; thestonenyc­.org.

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