McKinley’s Finale Receives A Fitting SOLI Performance

Guest Angela Jones-Reus (flute) joined SOLI members Ertan Torgul (violin), CarolynTrue (piano), David Mollenauer (cello), and Stephanie Key (clarinet). (Concert photos by Jason Murgo)
Guest Angela Jones-Reus (flute) joined SOLI members Ertan Torgul (violin), CarolynTrue (piano), David
Mollenauer (cello), and Stephanie Key (clarinet). (Concert photos by Jason Murgo)
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.

Composer William Thomas McKinley. (Photo courtesy SOLI)
Composer William Thomas McKinley. (Photo courtesy SOLI)

Established in 1994, SOLI specializes in recent music. The musicians are Ertan Torgul (violin), Stephanie Key (clarinet), David Mollenauer (cello), and Carolyn True (piano).

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.

Angela Jones-Reus breaks speed limit in Ian Clarke's 'The Great Train Race.' rubber in
Angela Jones-Reus breaks speed limit in Ian Clarke’s ‘The Great Train Race.’

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.

Carolyn True and David Mollenauer performed Lisa Bielawa's '50 Measures for Aaron.'
Carolyn True and David Mollenauer played Lisa Bielawa’s ’50 Measures for Aaron.’

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.