Review: A musician's portrait, as both composer and pianist
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Review: A musician's portrait, as both composer and pianist
The composer Amy Williams on the piano in a Composer Portraits concert dedicated to her, with the JACK Quartet, whose members include Christopher Otto, left, and Austin Wulliman, at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University in New York, Feb. 22, 2024. The four pieces on the program were for combinations of piano and strings. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- Whether as a composer or as a pianist, Amy Williams is first and foremost, in her heart of hearts, a chamber musician.

“Chamber music is my love when it comes to music, as a listener and performer,” she said in an onstage interview during a Composer Portraits concert devoted to her work at the Miller Theater at Columbia University on Thursday evening.

Miller’s composer portraits tend to focus on pieces for small groups, and therefore represent some artists more fully than others. Williams, born in 1969 and now a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has, in her relatively tight body of work, written little but small-group pieces. Many of them involve the piano, which brought her to Thursday’s concert as a performer, too, and gave the audience another crucial facet of her musical life. (She is the longtime half, with Helena Bugallo, of the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo.)

The four pieces on the program at Miller were for combinations of piano and strings, and featured the JACK Quartet, which performed on its own, as part of a piano quintet and with two of its members joining Williams in a trio.

Williams and JACK — violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards and cellist Jay Campbell — have collaborated for over a decade and form a happy partnership. The quartet has the pristine clarity to execute all the challenges Williams calls for: the supersoft passages and tight coordination; the complex, exposed unison rhythms; the variety of touch among the four players; and a mood both easygoing and changeable.

Most importantly, the group conveys the qualities at the core of Williams’ style. This isn’t laugh-out-loud or cartoonishly broad music, even when the players do effects like those on the aptly titled 2022 trio “Bells and Whistles.” But Williams’ work is witty and light on its feet, curious and playful, and never self-serious, even when the sounds are intense or harsh. Performed by a group as poised as JACK, what could come across as chaotic always tips instead toward catlike sprightliness.

The piano quintet at Miller, “Cineshape 2” (2007), is from a series of pieces Williams wrote inspired by films. This one is based on Mike Figgis’ “Timecode,” from 2000, which divided the screen into quadrants, with four narrative strands running simultaneously.

At the beginning of “Cineshape 2,” Williams naturally emphasizes differences among the instruments, like the contrast between volatility from the viola and held notes on the cello. But gently melded together by the piano — Williams’ use of that easily dominant instrument tends to be unusually restrained — they blend more and more.

“Bells and Whistles” featured Otto, the violinist, and Campbell, the cellist, making ricocheting and tapping sounds, and whistling slides up the fingerboard. At the piano, Williams sometimes reached into the instrument and manipulated the strings as she played, giving notes a metallic halo or, conversely, a curt percussiveness. A swath of the piece has a waltzing beat, although the group later enters a section of machine-like fever before an ethereal ending.

“Richter Textures” (2011), with seven sections that flow together, originated as a nod to paintings by Gerhard Richter. The textures are kaleidoscopically shifting: You can hear the luminous smoothness of colored glass; the gritty lushness of sandpaper; the cold slipperiness of ice; slicing; brushiness; murmuring, and then snapping. At one point, the first violin and cello share a broodingly dissonant elegy out of something by Dmitri Shostakovich. There are moments of agitation, but they pass back into uneasy calm.

The Miller Theater commissioned “Tangled Madrigal,” which had its premiere Thursday and, inspired by a madrigal by Nicola Vicentino (1511-76), will pair well with the medieval transcriptions that are in JACK’s repertory alongside its contemporary specialties.

The piece begins spidery and insubstantial, with a sense of sketchiness or of fragments slowly reconstituting, and then it whispers of the undulating arpeggios of the prelude to Johann Sebastian Bach’s first cello suite. Williams never directly quotes her Vicentino source, but combining the elegant formality of antique styles with a contemporary sound world, she maintains her characteristic, tricky balance between sobriety and mischievousness — a serious fun that’s all her own.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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