The Bad Plus & Cavani

Austin American Statesman By Luke Quinton | Monday, July 19, 2010

When Dave King, the drummer for the modern jazz trio The Bad Plus, pulled out two E.T. toys, to play beeps and static, it became clear that the Austin Chamber Music Festival is a fearlessly expanding our definition of chamber music.

The Cavani String Quartet and The Bad Plus each played to a Bates Recital Hall near capacity, drawing deserved standing ovations.

badplusThe Bad Plus write original works that show a fondness for complex rhythms, discordant harmonies, frenzied energy and surprise. The trio exudes the complete confidence of three musicians at the peak of their powers. It was enthralling to watch.

King, on percussion, flares his arms on, around and (literally) under his drum kit, looking like the Muppet’s’ Swedish chef, playing with an contagious grin that defined the entire set. His repertoire of clanging bells and other musical objects d’art made it difficult to look elsewhere; you can’t be sure what’s coming.

A small complaint was that Reed Anderson’s bass was often drowned out. He’d be striking the strings furiously, but was nearly inaudible.

The encore brought some covers; “Film,” by Aphex twin, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Both were well received, but, were no better than their originals; the lyrical “Knows The Difference,” or percussion-centered “Thriftstore Jewelry.” If you’ve missed the Bad Plus live, don’t let it happen again.

PLACEMENT IMAGEThe Cavani Quartet, formerly artists in residence at UT, began Beethoven with light and precise playing as the audience held deathly still.

Their entries were uniformly perfect, though the piece relies disproportionately on the first violinist, and Annie Fullard warbled through a few challenging trills; the evening’s only technical issues.

Next, a Szymanowski quartet worked as a palate cleanser: a dense, dissonant work, that used pizzicato like percussion, along with a few wild glissandos that drew giggles from the audience.

The music was cinematic, eerie in minor chords, starting with the snapshot of an idea, only to scrap it and move on. A challenging work, wonderfully played.

The Brahms was, for many, the big draw. Michelle Schumann, the festival’s director, featured on piano, and introduced it, saying “If this is what classical music is, I want to bathe in it every day of my life.”

She was right. Cavani played a wonderful, complex Brahms; lush harmonies that storm dramatically and pull out just about as much sound as possible from five musicians.

The Austin Chamber Music Festival continues through July 31.

Luke Quinton is an American-Statesman freelance arts critic.

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