The Fine Arts Chamber Players provided welcome relief this weekend to North Texans tired of unimaginative programming. Saturday’s attractive concert at the Dallas Museum of Art paired a shorter work, Aram Khachaturian’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, with the world première of a longer one, Margaret Barrett’s Universal Language.

This new work was conceived to complement the museum’s current exhibition called “Slavs and Tatars”, which focuses on political oppression as manifest in linguistic disputes in cultures “east of the Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China”. (Unfortunately, time did not permit me to view the exhibition on Saturday.) The text was prepared by Dr David Silva, a Harvard- and Cornell-trained linguist who also serves as president of the FACP board of directors. Dr Silva arranged sections from the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights into six movements in Eurasian languages (Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, Azerbaijani, Arabic and Armenian), plus a prologue and epilogue in English. While it looked slightly better on paper than it sounded in reality, Universal Language was an important part of a successful program.

Three Dallas Symphony Orchestra musicians – clarinetist Stephen Ahearn, violinist Angela Fuller-Heyde, and pianist Gabriel Sánchez – started things off in splendid fashion. Their performance of the Khachaturian Trio, a charming work dating from the composer’s student days, was memorable. (The choice of music by Khachturian, arguably Armenia’s most revered classical composer, was an interesting one given the thematic nature of the program; however, with the brief program notes only regarding Universal Language, this connection went unexplored.) The performers’ subtle use of rubato was crucial. Great composers from Mozart to Chopin to the 20th century have described their ideal sense of flexibility as combining an unwavering rhythmic backbone with a melody that sounds free but never truly deviates from this underlying meter. Mr Sánchez provided a stable background to open the trio, with Ms Fuller-Heyde and Mr Ahearn weaving their gypsy-inspired lines around his ambling chords. The scherzo in the second movement was read with edginess to counter the gentler outer movements, and a sense of forward momentum in the finale gave interest even to Khachaturian’s less inspired moments.

Another Dallas-based ensemble, The Obscure Dignitaries, then took the stage for Universal Language. As they performed, the text was projected onto a screen behind them, first giving the English version of an article from the UN Declaration, followed a few seconds later by that article in the language actually being sung. Vocalist Rachel LaViola was convincing in her handling of this work’s linguistic challenges. She favored in her middle and higher register a floating quality of sound, which worked nicely when amplified and lent a childlike innocence to the utopian ideals put forth in the text. Michael Nesuda (acoustic-electric guitar and oud) and Benjamin Croucher (doumbek and percussion) gave colorful performances as well. (I’d expect Ms LaViola’s apparent tiring toward the end, plus some occasionally very sketchy intonation from bassist Kevin Butler, had something to do with having limited time in which to prepare this hefty work.)

Ms Barrett’s music presented some wonderful ideas, starting with an aleatoric-style opening in which Mr Croucher struck cymbals with his hands and the other two instrumentalists vamped under Ms LaViola’s soaring vocal lines, their harmonies and textures changing periodically before settling into a regular rhythm as she sang the words “We proclaim”. The fifth movement, while interesting, borrowed too directly from Steve Reich, with its clapped opening and interjections of a fragmented vocal melody.

Perhaps upon a second hearing, Universal Language might be more convincing. There was certainly some contrast among its eight sections, but not enough to give meaning to all of its 30-odd minutes. In any case, this was an impressive effort for a mere several months of work (funding and logistical concerns were only resolved over the summer). Judging by the warm response Universal Language elicited from the near-capacity crowd Saturday afternoon, I suspect I am not alone in hoping to see more of this kind of bold vision from Fine Arts Chamber Players.

***11