Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Review: Revel’s “Mixtape: Stomp & Dance”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Sometimes you a hard look at the classical music scene and wonder, Where’s the innovation? For all its insecurities, all the public hems and haws over whether the next generation will come out to these shows, actual novelty in the way music is presented is surprisingly hard to come by. And when it comes, it’s usually on the margins.

So It was a pleasure to see this weekend’s concert by Revel — the Austin chamber presenters led by Carla McElhaney — taking steps to make this artform a little more relaxed and accessible to a general public.

It was a concert by the Zenith Quartet (McElhaney, on piano, with the members of Texas saxophone quartet Bel Cuore), that they dubbed a “live mixtape,” in the intimate concert space at the rear of Blackerby violin shop on Anderson Lane.

When Bang on a Can pianist Vicky Chow played a stunner of a headliner set at the Fast Forward music festival a few years ago, it was in the “mixtape” format. She played a set of relatively short movements without a program — tracks instead of pieces played in full. An attempt to remove barriers between an audience at the music.

Revel’s was a progressive mixtape — starting with the funky, almost free-jazz sax of John Harbison’s “San Antonio I - The Summons.” The Pulitzer-winning composer’s work also mixes in some piano work with a little Latin-American flare.

Like any good mixtape it had a story arc that developed by contrasts. A piece by Rob Smith called “Morse Code Pop” was a tense, fun sax duo. Later, Brent Kroening’s “Arabic Proclamation & Script” blended Middle Eastern modes with western style piano that made a mysterious couple. Pieces barely faded out before the next one began.

Dissonant works (Carter Pann’s “Vultures” lived up to its image of a group of squabbling birds, but didn’t come together) were resolved with eloquent melodies and more whimsical works, like a selection from Takashi Yoshimatsu’s “Fuzzy Bird Sonata.”

McElhaney gave a funny, theatrical performance of William Bolcom’s “Brass Knuckles” (a hilarious mash up of a ragtime pianist contending with a bar brawl). It was also a little raucous, with short, knowing winks to the audience. This was an infectious enthusiasm.

Later, the start of her Piazzolla (“Contrabajissimo”) was almost heavy metal.

There were also pretty, slightly sentimental transcriptions, as well as arrangements of work by Vivaldi, among others. And McElhaney was occasionally relieved in this concert by the saxophones playing solo works, or ensemble pieces by the likes of Jennifer Higdon.

The saxophones often sang out with that evocative sound that seems indelibly associated with noir film. The transcriptions like Vivaldi “Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor” was a kind of revelation in saxophone form. And each of these players, Rami El-Farrah, Sunil Gadgil, Michael Hertel, Spencer Nielsen, are confident, soulful players who guide us through complex counterpoint, dissonant edges and straightforward harmonies. Their collaboration with piano works well for both sides, and their adventurous selections for the mixtape are obviously in sync, while continuing to keep the audience’s wants and needs in mind.

The setup at Blackerby’s hall is comfortable chairs and tables (a place to put your drink) and the feeling is relaxed and communal. Yet the audience is attentive and the music is on point. Acoustically, the space is too small to have actual hangups, but on occasion the saxophones were too loud for the room, sometimes drowning out the piano.

Ultimately, Revel’s concert series is doing the work of audience building. Trying to keep the scene relaxed, instead of conforming to typical pretensions. Programming new works alongside comforting classics. This is a niche between the intimacy of house concerts and the more formal chamber series that serve Austin well.

If this intrigues you, Revel’s annual Solstice Festival is coming up, with three concerts June 7 through 14. It features more of Zenith Quartet, as well as Revel’s successful blend of new and nlassical music for vocalists and instrumental ensembles, including work by Austin’s Donald Grantham.