Controlled grief is heard as beauty in 'Quilt Panels'

October 23, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Quilting is a hobby, but for composer Ronald Caltabiano it is also a means of memorializing: His "Quilt Panels" for clarinet, horn, string trio and piano was inspired by the AIDS Quilt. It is an often strikingly beautiful work, and it was performed last night at the Baltimore Museum of Art by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the ensemble that commissioned it. The concert was the first in the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore series.

The sextet is in six continuous sections, each of which is dominated by a single instrument. From a simple set of notes -- it begins with some angry gestures by the horn -- it builds to something grand and sad. There are some beautiful individual moments: slashing attacks on the stringed instruments and blasts on the piano that sound uncannily like human screams, and the mournful viola solo that concludes the piece. But what was most impressive was the young composer's control of his materials, his ability to suggest nostalgia without becoming sentimental and his ability to write idiomatically for his superb instrumentalists (clarinetist David Shifrin, hornist Robert Routch, violinist Ida Kafavian, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Fred Sherry and pianist Lee Luvisi). Caltabiano, 30, clearly has the potential to be an important composer.

The direction he needs to go in was suggested by the work that preceded "Quilt Panels": Charles Wuorinen's String Trio. Wuorinen, now in his early 50s, is sometimes called mathematical and dry. I can understand the first, not the second. The String Trio, which was written in 1968, is mathematical in its elegance and economy. But so passionate a work can scarcely be called dry. It begins with long, sustained pitches for viola and cello and moves into an agitated, almost hysterical mode. Its end -- a slow, rocking figure -- is as keeningly beautiful as late Brahms. So tersely argued a work made the Caltabiano sound a little over-long.

The program began with Peter Lieberson's sextet, "Ziji" (1988). The title means "confidence" in Tibetan, and the composer's uninhibited delight in the coloristic and virtuosic possibilities of the instruments could surely be called confident.

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