|Clockwise from front: Min-Young Kim (violin), Jessica Thompson (viola), Kyu-Young Kim (violin), and Raman Ramakrishnan (cello) of Daedalus String Quartet. (STEVE J. SHERMAN)|
Hemphill program explores composer's moods and magic
One wonders what Isabella Stewart Gardner would have made of it: Six saxophones parading around the tapestry room in her Fenway mansion, playing a highly evolved version of St. Louis blues to a standing, clapping audience.
The concert Thursday evening of music by Julius Hemphill, the late composer (d. 1995) whose musical vision crossed over from saxophone band to include solo piano and string ensembles, was an awakening to anyone unfamiliar with his music - and a reminder, for those who know it, of his gnarly genius. Hemphill's work with St. Louis's Black Artists' Group in the 1960s led him to break out of the blues, without leaving it, to explore new realms of rhythm and harmony.
The program, the first in this year's "Composer Portraits" series at the Gardner museum, echoed a concert last year at New York's Miller Theatre with the same forces: the Julius Hemphill Sextet, under its leader Marty Ehrlich, and the Daedalus String Quartet, with pianist Ursula Oppens.
The program started and ended with music for saxophone sextet, with pieces for solo sax (a premiere of Ehrlich's "Reflections on a Theme by Hemphill"), string quartet, and piano. None of this music is easily likable: From roots in basic blues with its bass ostinato and simple chord progressions, complex solo lines arise and skitter over the usual pleasing intervals and melodic satisfactions. In "Mirrors," the soprano sax (J.D. Parran) worked itself into a paroxysm of flutter notes against a backdrop of clicking valves. In "Opening," the saxophones bend their pitch into a deliberately painful out-of-tuneness. "Mr. Critical" sounds a lot like a traffic jam in Tibet. Hemphill pushed the envelope in all directions.
Hemphill's pieces for classical instruments are not so much the result of a different phase - although they came later - as of a different compositional mood. The strings' more transparent, focused sound allows one to hear the harmonic structure and patterns more clearly, and Hemphill used them to express more softness of feeling. In "Mingus Gold," a three-movement tribute to Charles Mingus for string quartet, the cello, instead of carrying an insistent bass, becomes an eloquent soloist, with a rare singing line. The Daedalus players were unfailingly precise and completely involved. In "Parchment," for piano solo, ragtime and blues are a point of return for spiky gestures that might be Bartok or Debussy, beautifully rendered by Oppens.
In the final group, the sextet returned to play late pieces with brilliant solo turns and brought us home with "The Hard Blues" and a procession. The concert was a feature of the Gardner's new "After Hours" evenings, when the museum becomes a lively place. Mrs. Gardner, who once created a scandal by wearing an "Oh, you Red Sox!" headband to Symphony Hall, should be pleased.