Argento New Music Project’s first public engagement since pre-pandemic times demonstrated the ensemble’s fine, century-spanning programming – stretching this time from Béla Bartók and Ruth Crawford Seeger to Ann Cleare and Georg Friedrich Haas. The concert also made the most of its roster of musicians, notably clarinetist Carol McGonnell and pianist Steven Beck.

Michel Galante conducts the Argento Chamber Ensemble
© Michel Galante

The setting for this event was an upstairs theatre at the National Opera Center in Midtown Manhattan that looked rather like a toy airplane hangar and was small enough that contrabassist Tristan Kasten-Krause had to position himself on the floor among the two dozen people in attendance – which, in this case, constituted a fairly full house. But the room boasted warm acoustics that wonderfully complemented Seeger’s 1938 Andante for Strings, an orchestration of a movement from her own 1931 String Quartet. Seeger’s effort was to bring out the dissonances in the original piece and Argento tackled it wonderfully under the direction of conductor Michel Galante, making it slippery but distinct. 

With no shift in instrumentation, the orchestra moved into Bartók’s Divertimento, composed the following year. It was an artful pairing. The Andante quite easily could have been a prelude for the Divertimento, or rather they might have joined forces into an A/B/A/B alliance, with Bartók’s beautiful second movement seeming to mirror Seeger’s single movement piece. But he also broke from their common stasis with characteristic leaps and twirls in well articulated violin and cello themes. 

The 14 strings then left the stage – was I the only one left wanting for Schnittke’s Viola Concerto to complete the triptych? – and we were transported in time and scale to Ann Cleare’s eyam i (it takes an ocean not to), composed between 2009 and 2013. The piece is the first in a series of five solos for flute and clarinet inspired by the village of Derbyshire, which in 1665 put itself under quarantine rather than risk spreading the plague with which it was infected. Breathy tones seemed barely to make it out of the bell of McGonnell’s clarinet or sometimes didn’t manage at all – not so much a struggle as exhaustion and resignation, as if withering inside the instrument – in a staggering display of control over nuance and tone. "Nebulous" and "meandering" are hardly critical terms for a piece clearly meant to be so. It was an unusual mix of gripping and alienating that would surely fall flat in the hands of a lesser instrumentalist. Cleare wrote the piece for McGonnell, who is a marvel on the clarinet. (Her pandemic-time reading of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, available on YouTube, should be mandatory viewing.)

McGonnell returned for the almost unbearable riches of Haas’s 2018 catch as catch can: 'lunar eclipse' for clarinet, cello and piano. What seemed like impossible tremors and intervals on the B flat clarinet were echoed by cellist Michael Katz and anchored by the ever steadfast Beck. Together they achieved a remarkable instability that never imploded, Beck only occasionally reaching inside the case, Katz even less frequently moving below the bridge. The piece resolved in an unexpected elegy, setting a sadness to this sunny afternoon as we begin again to gather, mindful of why we hadn’t.