Monday, September 11, 2000

Hyper-eclectic Relâche in its season premiere

By David Patrick Stearns

Were there some sort of eclecticism showdown between the world-famous Kronos Quartet and Philadelphia's Relâche ensemble, the latter might win, though at the expense of its audience.

Its first concert of the season, part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2000 Saturday and yesterday at the Ethical Society, crossed musical borders into American Indian peyote drumming rituals, classical/jazz fusion, and West Coast quasi-minimalism in a single program, aided by the group's pungent, chameleonlike wind-and-percussion-dominated instrumentation. It's hard to imagine any one person loving it all; I could go with 65 percent.

The dominating presence Saturday was violinist-composer Diane Monroe, who has extensive contemporary-music credits and a Temple University affiliate faculty position. The stylish fingerslides of her jazz-violin style (think Stephane Grappelli with lots of funk) gave extra personality to her work and other composers' works.

Compositionally, on evidence of her uptempo Vibes and Groovin' Roots, she walks lines so fine as to be invisible, with interplay too intricate and textured to be improvised but too spontaneous not to be. Don't ask, just enjoy. Her remarkable solo-violin piece Spiritual, Blues and Beyond jumps off from Bach and rampages through blues and Paganinian virtuosity seamlessly.

Two works by Peter Garland were juxtaposed, alternating between movements of the solo-piano Walk in Beauty and percussion solo Nana and Victorio, their common denominator inspiration from the American Southwest. I'm sure those boldly etched piano chords and American Indian drumming patterns mean much to the composer, but not to me. Just as clothes from Santa Fe, N.M., don't wear well anyplace else, the music's sensibility may simply lack transplantability, as opposed to integrity.

Similarly, Leslie Burrs' three selections from larger works were winning but surprisingly conventional jazz pieces arising from the deeply felt impetus of racial politics and the life of Marcus Garvey.

The most distinctive, engaging voice was all too briefly represented: Erling Wold's 1997 dance score Close used minimalism as a starting point, mining it for its energy-generating ostinatos, but maintaining a looseness that allowed all manner of dramatic events (the kind Philip Glass strives for with his more homogeneous scores). Every layer of instrumentation (dominated by oboe, clarinet and electric keyboard) is deliciously manipulated, from spare, enigmatic moments to soaring, splashier climaxes.

Two small complaints: The music is so dramatically purposeful, I badly wanted to experience this dance score with choreography. And the composer (who was on hand) really shouldn't wear platinum-colored cowboy boots after Labor Day. Ah well, it's Relâche!

David Patrick Stearns' e-mail address is © 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.