CAMBRIDGE — “Alchemy is the ‘science’ of transmuting elements into substances of higher value,” wrote the composer Jonathan Bailey Holland in the program note for his duet, which opened Radius Ensemble’s Saturday evening concert. See those quotes around “science?” This is because as modern listeners, we know that alchemy — striving to transmute lead into gold, Philosopher’s Stones — is more or less bunk.
But when I listen to live chamber music, I feel like I can taste the same wonder and curiosity that those alchemists maybe felt. Here is the gutsy cry of the oboe; here a buzzing tremolo on the violin. Observe them together and see how they change each other, and see what stays the same.
This concert, “Vision,” was the final outing in Radius’s 20th season, and its repertoire called for many atypical sonic blends. The piece with the fewest players began the evening; Holland’s brief “Alchemy” explored the bright, hollow sound of alto flute and cello — here played by Sarah Brady and Miriam Bolkosky — with dissonant, slow-moving chorales and lots of extended-technique effects, some of which contributed more to the piece than others.
The unusual instrumentation of Beethoven’s Trio in G Major (flute, bassoon, piano) didn’t come from whimsy; the then-teenage composer was likely commissioned to write it so his aristocratic patron’s family could play it. The piece has some rough edges, but hints of the mature composer to come shone through in Radius’s performance. The sound balance was at first slanted toward the piano, but the three players (Brady, bassoonist Adrian Morejon, pianist Sarah Bob) soon aligned themselves, and what followed was effervescent as sparkling wine.
During John Harbison’s “Six American Painters” for string trio and oboe, paintings that had helped inspire the work were projected behind the ensemble, making for neat visual addendums. Radius artistic director and oboist Jennifer Montbach sat in the featured “concertante” role; her instrument wove a ribbon of stark color through the strings and excelled in eloquent denuded passages. The tiny hitches off some of her notes seemed to imitate the little ridge of paint at the end of a brushstroke.
Every player on the concert took the stage for the world premiere of formerly Boston-based composer Laurie San Martin’s “Seven Pines,” a Radius commission that played out like a series of alchemical experiments. In the first intermezzo, Brady’s flute pierced the string mist with a silver pin. Bob, a collaborative piano maven, took the solo spotlight with the surging “Etude .75,” which then turned inward to orbit around a pulsing note. Finally, with a foot-tapping syncopated figure, all the instruments gathered in a concordance of elements, recognizable and valuable as individuals— but in togetherness, something more. No wonder Radius has lasted 20 years.
At Edward M. Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge. May 4.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.