Austin’s central location puts me within just a few hours’ drive of most of the large Texas cities. Last fall I pointed my car east to check out Houston’s Musiqa, and so this spring I decided to head south to San Antonio. Known for the Riverwalk, the trail of Spanish missions, and the Alamo (though after more than a decade in Austin, it’s hard for me to think of anything but this when I think “Alamo”), San Antonio also has a vibrant musical community, and the chamber ensemble Soli is among the strongest proponents of new music in the region. Formed in 1994, Soli has commissioned 17 works in as many years, including the May 8 world premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End.
The McNay Art Museum was the setting for their final concert of the season. I arrived a bit early, and it looked as though it might turn out to be one of those old-school new music concerts where there are more people on stage than in the seats; a real bummer given the Mackey world premiere that was forthcoming. The handful of people who were there twenty minutes before curtain were dwarfed by the 100+ chairs, and as the 7:00 p.m. start arrived, Soli was joined on stage by Mackey, video director Mark DeChiazza, and dancer Kristin Clotfelter. However, as the casual pre-concert discussion led by pianist Carolyn True progressed, the rest of the audience came in by and by, eventually all but filling the room.
The concert began with la scène miniature quartet by Richard Carrick. I’ve never really tuned in to microtonality, so its mention in the program notes made me a bit wary, but Carrick’s spare use here was effective without descending into the sometimes painful, quasi-out-of-tune world which often develops. The microtonal lines in the violin played well against the piano, long loping phrases giving way to breathy bass clarinet and seagull harmonics in the cello, the latter sounding quite organic and natural in the texture and not like the special effect it typically is. These lines moved seamlessly between the bass clarinet and cello, which were rejoined shortly by a more consonant dance in the violin and piano, the former eventually returning to microtones. Finally, they were all together, syncopated germs bouncing about as a Bela Lugosi moment by way of Bartók showed up at the end of the work, tremolo and all, with big eyebrows in the piano.
An oldie but goodie, Stephen Hartke’s trio for piano, clarinet, and violin The Horse with The Lavender Eye (1997) followed the Carrick. Featuring left hand alone for all performers initially, piano rumbles, angular clarinet lines, and insectile pizz. arpeggios populate the first movement, the extreme quiet of the violin drawing the listener in as the piece shuffles forth. “The Servant Of Two Masters” was a fitting title, as listening to the movement almost seems like flipping back and forth between two television programs. True divided her time between Stephanie Key’s piercing clarinet part and Ertan Torgul’s contrasting gossamer violin lines. The peaceful wandering lines of “Cancel My Rumba Lesson” which followed contrasted with both the earlier manic material and the title itself. The communication on stage was tight and particularly notable during the fits and starts of the second movement.
The McNay was doing a big Warhol show, so Paul Moravec’s Andy Warhol Sez, originally for piano and bassoon, arranged here by Key for bass clarinet, seemed a particularly appropriate choice. Consisting of seven miniatures (some a bit bigger than others), the piece explored a variety of moods and textures and was quite attractive and approachable. The Moravec was followed by an arrangement of “Kashmir” performed by cellist David Mollenauer.  I would have to think at least twice before deciding not to do an impression of Robert Plant in a truly seminal Zeppelin track, but I have to say that Mollenauer pulled it off with aplomb. The arrangement was originally for cello ensemble, but Mollenauer recorded several backing tracks which he played along with live, complete with the occasional percussive thwack. The entire evening was quite well received, but the applause volume peaked at the end of this piece. It occurred to me afterward that there were likely a number of people in the audience who were not familiar with the source material and simply enjoyed the tune and the vitality of the performance. While I also enjoyed it, I did find myself wishing that I could hear this piece without the baggage of an entire high school life spent playing rock guitar. 
Speaking of misspent youth as it relates to guitars, the second half featured the premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End. Commissioned by Soli and featuring video by Mark DeChiazza of a performance by dancer Kristin Clotfelter, Prelude to the End was written not exactly as a response to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, but with the knowledge that any piece written for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano might be programmed along with the Quartet, or at least seen in light of it. No pressure. Initially populated with bright declamatory gestures among the ensemble, high moto perpetuo piano lines developed which were underscored by jagged phrases in the cello and bass clarinet. These phrases are picked up on by the violin, leading to an overall darker section. A brief return to the opening material acted as a bridge to new and highly syncopated lines, heavy chordal riffs in the piano accompanied by high, dramatic violin parts. This eventually spins itself out leading to somber, slower, and more reflective material which lasted through the end of the work.
The concert was followed by a reception as casual as the opening of the show. Soli and their guest artists spent the better part of the next hour chatting with the audience in the lobby, and I found myself in a conversation with a recently retired art teacher who had just moved back to Texas after several decades teaching in New York. She and I briefly discussed the finer points of the evening’s music, but much of our discussion was about the concert experience itself. She was happily surprised at the broad demographic of the audience, the relaxed atmosphere, and the warmth and connectivity of the musicians both on and off the stage. She said it reminded her of shows she’d seen back east, but was not necessarily what she’d expected upon her return. I said that I thought the show was representative of my concert-going experience in the area, and that if she enjoyed this one, there were likely many more in store for her. She seemed heartened by that, and as she made her way over to mingle with the artists, I headed out to my car, the riff from “Kashmir” my accompaniment on the way home.