By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO – When the prolific American composer William Thomas McKinley died in 2015, he left an unfinished manuscript on the piano in his study. His son, Elliott Miles McKinley, also a composer, soon ascertained that it was a piece his father had been writing for the SOLI Chamber Ensemble in San Antonio. On Oct. 10 in the Tobin Center’s Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, SOLI performed the fragment, under the title Two Movements, as the composer left it — unedited and ending in mid-thought, four measures into the third of a projected five movements.
Among SOLI’s 46 commissions to date was a 2012 piece, Three Portraits, by Elliott Miles McKinley. The son wrote in a program note that his father became interested in composing something for SOLI after hearing the quartet’s recording of that piece. The elder McKinley also had been acquainted with Key from her time as a student at the New England Conservatory, where he taught; she has performed several of his works for clarinet.
The first of the elder McKinley’s Two Movements is a romanza that gives the clarinet ardent melody in fairly wide intervals — as unpredictable as the knuckleball pitches he used to throw, but still within the lyrical strike zone — while the piano spins continuous ribbons of fluid counterpoint and the strings provide rhythmic punctuation. Now and then the mood changes suddenly and there is a brief episode of aggression.
The romanza hints of blues feeling, which becomes explicit in the second movement, titled “slow blues groove.” Here the music swings in a style reminiscent of 1940s jazz and pop idioms, at times recalling the scat-singing trio in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The third movement is titled “Nagtime” — the N is very clear on the manuscript — but the scant few measures of piano rag give little sense of where the composer was planning to take the music. As one expects from McKinley, the writing throughout is harmonically deft and venturesome, and especially sympathetic to the clarinet and piano.
The splendid flutist Angela Jones-Reus joined SOLI in Pierre Jalbert’s Crossings (2011) and Sebastian Currier’s Static (2003). Jalbert’s piece has at its center a French-Canadian folk tune, played by the violin, but much of the work is given to moody, plangent chords and running figures that suggest the isolation and nomadic migrations of the far North. The six movements of Currier’s work are varied takes on the idea of stasis, often expressed in drones or slowly drifting chords with rhythmic counterpoint like the impatient rapping of fingers, but sometimes heard in quick skittering that seems boxed in. In the fourth movement, a lovely, grieving melody on violin weaves through staccato piano notes that suggest raindrops. The fifth movement is called (and sounds) “Charged”: in this nervous, densely textured movement, flute and clarinet are replaced by piccolo and bass clarinet, giving the music a vertiginous quality that touches on madness.
True and Mollenauer collaborated in Lisa Bielawa’s 50 Measures for Aaron (2009), composed to honor composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ 50th birthday. It begins as a slow cello rhapsody with rippling waves on piano, in an idiom that is tonal but harmonically slippery. The music grows faster and more active rhythmically, then calmer again at measure 36 — which we know because the players are instructed to announce each measure number.
Jones-Reus was on her own in Ian Clarke’s astonishing The Great Train Race (1993), a jaw-dropping, immensely entertaining display of rapid tonguing, multiphonics (two pitches sounding at once), and other extended techniques.
All of the performances were polished, committed, and lively.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.