“It’s a contra-alto clarinet,” explained Ben Goldberg to an audience puzzled at the first sight of this long, coiled silver instrument. “But it can be used to clean your sink in an emergency.” The ensemble Tin Hat – comprising Mr Goldberg on clarinets (B flat and contra-alto), Carla Kihlstedt on violin and vocals, guitarist Mark Orton, and Rob Reich playing piano and accordion – appeared this past Friday on the latest presentation of Soundings, the new music series at the Nasher Sculpture Center. This quartet of composers performed the rain is a handsome animal, their song cycle based on poems by E.E. Cummings, on the first half of an eclectic program; after intermission, pianist Gilbert Kalish played Charles Ives’ iconic Concord Sonata.

Cummings and Ives were New Englanders and near contemporaries (their lives overlapped by 60 years). They never met, though, and as Artistic Director Seth Knopp coyly suggested, this Soundings concert was their “introduction to each other”. The song “Serenity”, near the end of the rain is a handsome animal, was the lone number without a text by Cummings; its ten lines were written by John Greenleaf Whittier, set to music by Ives himself, and transcribed into the present arrangement by Tin Hat. This made for an interesting, if coincidental, meeting of minds, but it was the dispositions of poet and composer, and the stylistic mélange concocted by Tin Hat, that gave unity to the evening.

As discussed in excellent printed program notes, which featured remarks on Cummings by the late literary scholar Richard S. Kennedy and an essay on Ives by musicologist Jan Swafford, both men embraced traditional and experimental forms with equal zeal: Ives rejoiced in the simplicity of hymn-writing as well as in his avant-garde efforts; and Cummings, who famously sought a new visual layout of text in his poems, nevertheless expressed himself throughout his life via the quaint genre of the sonnet.

This sense of creative openness and its inherent rejection of categorization served as an effective backdrop for Tin Hat’s performance. Ms Kihlstedt’s singing on many songs was reminiscent of the Icelandic pop star Björk, notably in a pale color eerily enhanced by amplification and a self-conscious exaggeration of diphthongs. The compositions ranged in style from Latin-infused – the title track featured driving slap guitar, meandering accordion riffs, and swift violin slides that brought to mind the music of Ástor Piazzolla – to experimental, as in “so shy shy shy”, which began with an audio recording of Cummings reading his own work and proceeded to weave melodies out of the pitch content of his spoken voice. Distinctive timbral effects were everywhere: Mr Goldberg’s punchy tongue articulation on the contra-alto clarinet complemented Mr Orton’s driving bass lines and Mr Reich’s crisp chords; vocal lines explored various degrees of breathiness, achieving great effect when full-throated; and Ms Kihlstedt’s occasional use of a violin strung with four E-strings created shimmering colors.

Ives’ four pieces published under the heading of Piano Sonata no. 2, “Concord, Mass. 1840–60” pay tribute to the literary titans of that time and place: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Henry David Thoreau. After reading to the audience some of Ives’ characterizations of these figures in his Essays Before a Sonata, Mr Kalish gave a commanding performance of this 50-minute work. Ives frequently sets several traditional melodies simultaneously in different keys and meters, saturating his music until it flows over into frenetic outbursts. Mr Kalish showed a sensitivity to all of these various elements, allowing voices to amble along unforced and maintaining a clear differentiation of layers. In his treatment of Ives’ favorite recurring motive, a melody based on the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mr Kalish offered a huge variety of inflections, never expressing the figure in quite the same way. Flutist Conor Nelson brought a warm, even tone to the lone flute passage in the fourth movement, “Thoreau”, watching from behind some 20 rows of seats for Mr Kalish’s cue. (There is also an optional viola part in the first movement, “Emerson”, but this was not played tonight.)

When every phrase is uttered with urgency, such a mammoth work as the Concord Sonata can seem to glide by the listener. That a three-hour event felt the same way was a sign of thoughtful programming, fresh presentation, and engaging performance.

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