This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
Brian Raphael Nabors scored a significant career boost in 2019 when he won the Rapido! Composition Contest, the brainchild of the Atlanta Chamber Players and the Antinori Foundation. Two years later, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured Nabors in a showcase of new composers.
Credit: Atlanta Chamber Players
Credit: Atlanta Chamber Players
A new piece by Nabors, commissioned by the Atlanta Chamber Players, was the centerpiece of a May 21 concert at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta that ran the gamut from classic to contemporary.
The final concert of the Atlanta Chamber Players’ 47th season opened with Camille Saint-Saëns’ Oboe Sonata in D Major, Op. 166. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione was joined on piano by Atlanta Chamber Players artistic director Elizabeth Pridgen. The sonata is a deceptively simple composition with a melody that’s given to long, wistfully sustained passages punctuated only in passing by virtuosic flourishes.
The piece was ideal for the pair as Tiscione and Pridgen offer a signature degree of restraint in their playing. Both excel when given over to music that is dreamy, whimsical and, above all, gentle. The sonata shone brightly under their tender touch.
However, the world premiere of Nabors’ Piano Quintet for two violins, viola, cello and piano was the afternoon’s most captivating work and vividly showcased the composer’s ongoing musical development.
Nabors’ engaging and ever-evolving repertoire is focused on finding structure in the midst of chaos. “Onward,” his piece in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2021 showcase of new composers, leaned heavily on the influence of early American classical composers with a particular nod to Aaron Copeland. But it was an influence that seemed shrouded in a hubbub of conflicting sonic motion.
The Piano Quintet has the same foundation, with parts that seem disparate at first before becoming increasingly coherent as the composition evolves. The result is a musical journey that would seem aimless in the hands of a lesser composer but here bubbles up into the kind of densely orchestrated mayhem put forth by Charles Mingus on “Pithecanthropus Erectus.”
Nabors’ Piano Quintet is steeped in his Birmingham, Alabama, roots and filled with nods to blues, jazz, R&B and other contemporary textures.
The opening movement, “Bootleg Hoedown,” leans heavily on Americana in a manner reminiscent of Pat Metheny or Lyle Mays. An airy, light-hearted melody floats through the intersecting phrases as if to tie them together as one. That ability to bring wildly conflicting elements into a cohesive whole is the sign of a master composer and evidence of Nabors as a captivating voice in the world of classical modernism.
The second movement, “Expanse” is meant to evoke images of the natural world that surrounded Nabors in his youth and succeeds in transporting the listener to a carefree realm of sun-drenched fields and gently rolling creeks. Nabors tinkers with tonality and is happy to push the melody into the outer realms of each instrument’s capacity but never to such a degree that it becomes grating. The effect is a slow-burning exploration that comes off like a folk-infused answer to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
“Flight,” the third and final movement, is an unrelenting scherzo that returns to Nabors’ penchant for controlled chaos. There is melody to be sure, but it wrestles manically with the densely orchestrated pandemonium around it. Of the three parts, it is the most aggressive and least listener friendly, but it still yields musical rewards.
The ensemble for Piano Quintet consisted of Pridgen on piano, along with violinists Helen Hwaya Kim and Kenn Wagner, violist Katherine Lynn and cellist Brad Ritchie. They seemed to be having a blast and smiled throughout, especially during a passage that called for them to stomp on the floor. Nabors’ music elicits the kind of joy that translates directly from the players to the audience.
Wagner and Ritchie returned with organist Jens Korndörfer to perform Josef Rheinberger’s Trio, Op. 149. Much like the opening Oboe Sonata and the second movement of Nabors’ Piano Quintet, the Trio is a soft, pastoral piece. That quiet reverie seemed to be the order of the day, and Korndörfer’s willowy enunciation on the organ wonderfully underscored that feeling.
The afternoon closed with Kim, Pridgen and horn player Susan Welty performing Johannes Brahms’ Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 40. The work was well played but after the powerhouse delivery of Nabors’ Piano Quintet, it seemed to drag things on a touch too long.
The afternoon belonged to Nabors. His Piano Quartet shows a rising talent that demands our attention even as he evolves.
Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.
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