SOLI Power

The SOLI Chamber Ensemble was in excellent form at the Blue Star Center for Contemporary Arts March 11. There, surrounded by the varied works of the Amalgamations exhibit `reviewed in these pages March 10`, music lovers listened to pieces by composers Timothy Kramer, Isaiah Putman, and Diego Vega, all of whom were in attendance. 

The affable and informed John Clare, host of the afternoon classical music program on Texas Public Radio, and, as of January, the executive director of SOLI, began the evening with an informal interview of the composers. When an audience member asked about the process of composing, a lively consensus emerged: writing music is tedious, hard work redeemed in the end, as Kramer put it, by “the joy of the premiere, of hearing the thing.” 

“Joy” is an apt word to apply to the SOLI Chamber Ensemble itself. Clarinetist Stephanie Key, cellist David Mollenauer, violinist Ertan Torgul, and pianist Carolyn True play with such taste, precision, and passion, and have such a remarkable musical rapport with one another, that I was reminded of Goethe’s famous remark about chamber music being an “intelligent conversation among four rational people.” Kramer’s “Cycles and Myths” displayed to advantage both the group’s coherence as a whole, and the strengths of the individual performers, comprising as it does a rondo-like structure of theme and variation (the titular “cycles and myths”) which highlighted, in turn, each of the four instruments.

Stephanie Key later played another of Kramer’s works, “Key Fragments,” a solo piece which the composer wrote for — and dedicated to — the clarinetist. Key sounded the main motif of the work — an urgent, abrupt question which modulates over the course of the piece to flat declaration, meditation, and even a few moments of Albert Ayler-like exaltation — outside of the main gallery and then walked to the music stand, playing all the while. In the brisk middle section of the piece, Key played a number of virtuosic runs which ascended and fell from the instrument’s upper register, and the high notes lingered in the ear a few moments afterward, the aural equivalent of the afterimages left on the retina when you stare into the sun. 

“Key Fragments” was followed by Diego Vega’s Divertimento. In some respects the most traditional composition of the program, the piece comprises four movements, of which the third, “Danza — Lullaby,” provided, for me at any rate, the evening’s benediction. At the beginning and end of the movement, Mollenauer, Torgul, and Key took turns playing a gorgeously simple legato melody, rather as if they were passing a sleeping infant, ever so carefully, from person to person. 

Earlier in the evening we heard the world premiere of Isaiah Putman’s trio for violin, cello, and piano, “Systemic Secrets and Animal Space Stations.” Deliberately eschewing as a model the piano trios of Zwilich, Tower, and Takemitsu, Putman has written a bristling, idea-rich piece consisting of two symmetrical movements designed, as he put it, to leave the listener in doubt as to when the first ends and the other begins. Despite the composer’s insistence that the title of the work is “unimportant,” he did allow that the title’s first half refers to a “detailed pitch system throughout, which no one will ever figure out.” I certainly did not, and I could only marvel at the piece’s variety and ingenuity. The trio is something of a workout for Carolyn True, with whom the composer studies piano; at one moment she was obliged to stand and mute the bass strings of the instrument with her left hand while playing with her right. Later, she played in isolation a lyrical passage which, in the context of the piece, stood out as a kind of safe harbor in the midst of the trio’s aggressive turbulence. 

Putman, who is currently a student at Trinity University, was born in San Antonio in 1990, and has spent half of his life living in Russia and Moldova. His family’s return from the latter place was motivated by the composer’s desire to attend the music program at the North East School of the Arts, which has been in the news recently as the magnet program struggles to surmount a grave budget crisis brought on by diminished state funding for public schools. No mention of the school’s troubles was made during the performance, yet I could not help thinking what a loss it would be if NESA, a school that played such an important role in Putman’s artistic formation, were forced to close. Putman’s musical career seems assured; you’ll be hearing from him soon. As for the other gifted young people — budding filmmakers, musicians, artists, writers, and dancers — who would benefit from NESA’s potential, only time will tell. •

Justin Isenhart is a critic and writer based in San Antonio. Track SOLI at

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