In her poem I am your conductor, composer, pianist and poet Lera Auerbach wrote, "Perhaps a sound means more than a word/And intonation -- more than verse." Her sounds may indeed have outdone her words Saturday night at the Southern Theatre, as the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, with guest artist The Borromeo String Quartet, presented a program featuring the world premiere of Auerbach's Fragile Solitudes: Shadowbox for String Quartet and Chamber Orchestra.
Auerbach's style might be challenging for listeners not accustomed to contemporary classical music; she takes elements of Stravinsky, Babbitt (her former teacher), Schoenberg and even Cage and melds them with a modern, graceful lyricism.
Fragile Solitudes reflects her literary themes of transformation and decay, an undertow of fear and exaltation beneath a glassy surface. The piece wanders along a path of ethereal melodies, percussive outbursts, haunting timbres and mystical exchanges.
The Borromeo Quartet, renowned for their interpretations of contemporary works, brought a rare level of artistry to the new work. It seemed less a world premiere than a standard in their repertoire list. Likewise, ProMusica showed its flexibility and scope in masterfully handling Auerbach's technical demands.
Fortunately for the listeners, the Borromeo Quartet performed on two other pieces: Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings and Beethoven's Grosse Fugue, Op. 133. The quartet members worked with such a singularity of purpose that it often seemed a moot point to differentiate one voice from another.
In Introduction and Allegro, the solo violin lines melted seamlessly into the swell of the full orchestra, and the brief viola solo early in the piece was memorable long after it ended. The orchestra powered through massive unisons and danced through intricate counterpoints. Its only technical flaw was occasionally playing too delicately, resulting in momentary losses of color.
The Grosse Fugue is Beethoven at his most intense, a piece that vividly captures his fabled madness. It is simultaneously charming and strange, with aggressive pizzicatos, sweet melodies and breakneck changes of direction. Through combined efforts, however, the musicians made the Fugue more than a barrage of ornaments and effects. The quartet answered Beethoven's technical assault with a solo section of startling purity, almost emotionless in its beauty. The orchestra stumbled a few times under the sheer multitude of relentless dotted rhythms but recaptured its composure quickly, proving a worthy match for the challenging work.
The program was rounded out with Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite No. 1 and Russell Nagy's Cynosure -- A Fantasia for the Arts.
Cynosure was commissioned and performed by the Hilliard Davidson High School Chamber Orchestra, as part of ProMusica's education program. The students played with a good sense of ensemble and few errors, but the paean to arts advocacy (with serious echoes of Aaron Copland and John Williams) provided little in the way of artistic challenge. Its rich but bland expansiveness also failed to captivate the audience, as evidenced by many distracted patrons who believed their whispering to be inaudible.
Ancient Airs and Dances was a refreshing -- if slightly incongruous -- end to the program. After a concert filled with many faces of the avant-garde, a work based on early Baroque lute music was both a relief and an anomaly. ProMusica allowed the straightforward melodies to exist in their own right, not forcing them to fit the rest of the evening's program.
Perhaps, as Auerbach says, sounds do mean more than words. ProMusica and its guest artists could hardly have expressed their repertoire more successfully.