The grandeur of landscape and the pull of memory have provided countless composers with a powerful creative prompt. In the case of Marti Epstein, the accomplished Boston-based composer who this weekend received a 60th-birthday tribute from the Ludovico Ensemble, both forces seem to magnetize her music, and both seem to inform its wistful, quiet eloquence.
Take for instance Epstein’s “Nebraska Impromptu,” which opened the second of three all-Epstein programs at Longy’s Pickman Hall on Sunday night. This hauntingly beautiful piece, for clarinet and piano, reflects on the wide open landscapes of her Nebraska childhood. The writing is restrained yet highly evocative; the clarinet does not so much deliver melodies as it does summon the qualities of the light, the stillness of the land, the contours of the sky. And the piano punctuates this reverie with glittering, carefully placed chords. Yet there is also a melancholy here, and a sense of temporal distance. These are not sonic snapshots of an actual prairie but impressions recollected from afar and silvered by the years.
A similarly reflective tone informs Epstein’s gently mysterious 2004 work “Angel of Memory,” also performed on Sunday evening. This piece does not overtly incorporate text but responds wordlessly to a set of poems by the Chilean-American poet Marjorie Agosín, texts which pay tribute to the poet’s great-grandmother who fled Nazi Europe to settle in Chile. Cast in 10 concise movements for piano, cello, and percussion, the music is at once dreamlike in its fugitive play of colors and yet strikingly precise in its timbral imagination.
Offsetting these two reflective works on Sunday were two others of a less pointedly allusive nature entitled “Origami” and “Dirl.” The latter, written in 2018 and scored for three percussionists, cello, and bass clarinet, is a vast work of independently unfolding processes. The piece grows slowly out of silence, builds to a climax, and recedes once more into a deep silence, yet over the course of that span the music traces separate arcs in both relative pitch and in the speed of the tremolos that function as the musical cells out of which this work’s larger structures are built.
All this sounds abstract and, well, it is abstract — but Epstein, who is also an admired teacher on the faculty of Berklee College of Music, is still welcoming to the listener even at her most experimental. Her music, in the generosity of its sensual detail, rewards careful attention; it invites you to stay and listen; and while you’re there, it artfully manipulates notions of time. “Dirl” spans a full 45 minutes on the clock, but the music’s play of dynamism and stasis creates — and pulls you into — a kind of meta-tempo all its own.
Sunday’s performances by members of the Ludovico Ensemble — including Rane Moore (clarinet); Donald Berman (piano); David Russell (cello); and Mike Williams, Jeff Means, and Nicholas Tolle (percussion) — were executed with impressive precision and abundant care.
EPSTEIN @ 60
At Longy School of Music, Nov. 17