by Steven Pisano
One of the highlights of Nadia Sirota’s recent four-night residency at Symphony Space was the world premiere last Friday night of Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s Tessellatum, a 40-minute piece written for 11 viols and 4 violas, but here pared down to 4 viols and a viola.
The viol da gamba is not an instrument usually played in a standard orchestra. Unlike its cousins in the violin family, it uses frets to control sound, though it is bowed. It also has less volume and a gentler sound. But put a mass of viols together, and an interesting resonance results.
On stage for Tessellatum were violists Doug Balliet, Loren Ludwig, Zoe Weiss, and Liam Byrne (with whom Ms. Sirota has made a recording of the piece, to be released later this year by the Icelandic record label/collective Bedroom Community). Together they wove a richly knotted tapestry of sound, with Ms. Sirota’s swooping viola overstitching the top. Each musician also took a solo turn--sometimes slow and contemplative, other times staccato and anxious--exploring different musical timbres.
Mr. Dennehy was in attendance and, standing with the musicians on stage at the end, clearly beamed at the warm reception from the audience, which was richly peppered with a number of contemporary musicians and composers regularly seen at New York concerts.
During the first half of the concert, Mr. Byrne also joined Ms. Sirota on viola and Nico Muhly on piano (as well as “electronic sounds”), performing a suite from 2012’s Architecture of Loss by the Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurosson, who was supposed to be in attendance but could not obtain the requisite visa in time. Architecture of Loss is a score for a ballet by choreographer Stephen Petronio. Known recently more as a composer, Mr. Muhly’s piano playing was graceful and determined, skillfully riding the peaks and valleys of the piece.
Ms. Sirota’s viola playing was bright and vibrant, though in many ways more muted than at some other concerts where I have seen her perform with other ensembles; she is an active member of yMusic, Alarm Will Sound, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). She also appeared to be smiling contentedly all throughout the night, as if playing music by her friends, with her friends (including Richard Reed Parry, Bryce Dessner, and David Lang), and for her friends was the ultimate way to spend a cold winter's night.
(More photos can be found here.)