Concerts that yoke together composers for non-musical reasons—because they wrote about the same theme, were born in the same year, or perhaps shared the same mentor—usually end up being exercises in nostalgia. The concept brings about uneven programs, with some interesting music, some derivative music, and lots of forgettable music.
Not so Thursday evening’s “Ocean State Composers” program, part of Music on the Hill’s ongoing summer series. This performance, at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Warwick, featured five composers, either born or raised in Rhode Island, working in an amalgam of compelling styles.
Music of Thomas Bucci, Daniel Carr, Carl Schimmel, Nico Muhly and Sebastian Currier was performed. All are living, save Bucci, who passed away in 2017.
Bucci’s one movement duet (Rita Porfiris, viola and Jason Hardink, piano) kept rudimentary positions for the string player, but still found room for a sweet cadenza. The duo also tackled Schimmel’s bracing “Contemplation on Vanessa in the Boneset,” full of big ideas, sweeping moods and delicately exposed finger positions for Porfiris.
Daniel Carr wrote some of the most affecting music on the program—song settings from William Blake and Sara Teasdale. Soprano Diana McVey was joined by pianist Bonnie Anderson.
The Blake settings were direct: a short, wordless melisma that closed “Nurse’s Song” was the tenderest moment. Teasdale’s dark poems (in 1933 she committed suicide, and one of these songs, “I Shall Not Care,” was her farewell) found appropriate musical gestures from Carr. Set high in the register, with formal diction, Carr captured Teasdale’s dark intent. Her stark goodbye words, set as a funeral march, were riveting, and beautifully sung.
Muhly writes that “Big Time”—set for string quartet and percussion—generates from a simple minor scale. True perhaps—but that scale expands wildly. Using a minimalist underpinning, with percussive accents—Peter Ferry played gongs, cowbells and congas—“Big Time” starts small but lives large.
So does Muhly’s “Beaming Music,” in a much different way. Ferry switched to marimba, while Hardink accompanied on the St. Gregory organ. Even with just two instrumentalists, “Beaming Music” could have used a conductor. Not all the tricky entrances and rhythms got perfectly navigated, but the playing here—especially from Ferry—brought out the restless energy in the music.
Hardink closed the evening with a short piano work by Muhly, and two more from Sebastian Currier. Currier is certainly the most decorated composer on this program. He was awarded the 2007 Grawemeyer Award—among the most prestigious, and lucrative, in classical music—for his quintet “Static.”
His work has been championed by many prominent players, including Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Ying Quartet, and the Berlin Philharmonic. The Boston Symphony Orchestra co-commissioned and gave one of the first performances of his “Divisions,” in 2015 with Andris Nelsons conducting.
Currier’s “Scarlatti Cadences” and “Brainstorm” on this program emphasized diversity. The first work was an expansion on borrowed ideas, the second an extended jam of chord progressions. Thrilling, partly inscrutable, the works got bravura attention from Hardink, and proved rousing concert closers.
Music on the Hill runs through June 10 at various locations in Warwick. Tickets are $25, students free. Call (401) 435-3884 or visit www.musiconthehillri.org.