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Music Review

Grandeur of Grand Canyon echoes through Seully Hall

Rhonda Rider met the new pieces’ formidable demands. Rhonda Rider met the new pieces’ formidable demands. (Liz Linder)
By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / March 14, 2011

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It’s not easy to describe the vast beauty of the Grand Canyon in words — let alone with a single cello.

But that’s the task the always enterprising Boston-area cellist Rhonda Rider recently set to 11 composers. Chosen to participate in the Grand Canyon National Park Artist in Residence Program, Rider spent two weeks on the Canyon’s south rim not just admiring the view, but practicing the pieces at the spot that inspired them.

On Thursday evening, she performed the new works for a partisan crowd at Seully Hall at Boston Conservatory, where she teaches cello and serves as chair of chamber music. This was also apparently the program’s world premiere, since snow forced the postponement of the planned February performance at the Grand Canyon.

Five of the 11 composers who work and teach locally were in the audience: Jan Swafford, Marti Epstein, Yu-Hui Chang, Howard Frazin, and Dalit Hadass Warshaw. David Rakowski, Laura Kaminsky, John Kennedy, Andy Vores, Jeffrey Mumford, and the musical theater duo Emma Lively and Tyler Beattie supplied the remaining six pieces.

At least two of the composers (Epstein and Warshaw) admitted they had never visited the Grand Canyon. Perhaps that explains the generic intellectual approach of Epstein’s “So Near, So Far (in six movements),’’ whose intimacy diminishes nearly to incoherent inaudibility. In “Naissance,’’ a reflection upon a Native American myth, Warshaw imposes a chilly mathematical control, devising a series of numbers and set classes that make more sense on paper than in performance.

Some of the other composers knew the canyon well. Speaking briefly before the performance of “The Silence at Yuma Point,’’ Swafford confessed to being an “old canyon hiker’’ fond of its buttes and rocks. He responded to the inward experience of the “windless silence,’’ using a unifying ghostly descending four-note motif.

Several works employed river and water imagery. Chang’s haunting “Rio del Tizon’’ gurgled and bubbled with plaintive echoes of Native American song. Rakowski’s rhapsodic “Luccicare’’ glistened, shimmered, and conjured up the eternal spirit of J.S. Bach, another spectacular natural monument.

All the composers presented Rider with formidable technical and artistic demands (strange harmonics, bowing over the bridge, bent pitches) that she met with exemplary control and artistic exuberance. But little of music captured the pungent aroma of the dusty Southwestern surroundings. Call me old-fashioned, but I kept waiting for some of the grand frontier muscle of “On the Trail’’ from Ferde Grofé’s panoramic “Grand Canyon Suite.’’

Harlow Robinson can be reached at harlo@mindspring.com.

RHONDA RIDER: Eleven New Pieces for Solo Cello At: Boston Conservatory, Seully Hall, Thursday