Janus Trio has few sparks in show at Atlas Center

April 6, 2012

The concert by the adventurous young Janus Trio at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Thursday had all the makings of a high-voltage evening. The players — flutist Amanda Baker, Beth Meyers on viola and Nuiko Wadden on harp — are seasoned virtuosos and key players in New York’s new-music scene, and the program was made up almost entirely of hip, new pieces from hip, young composers. Moreover, the Atlas may be the best place in town to get up close and personal with new music.

So why, then, was the evening such a dud?

Maybe it was the half-empty hall, which can dampen any group’s mojo. Or it may have been the odd-slash-lofty thesis of the evening, which, as Baker explained, was to “explore the static of one’s mind to discover what really exists” (a tricky game, as we know). But probably it was just the general sense, as the evening wore on, of self-involved music being played without much passion or discernible fire.

Angelica Negron’s “Drawings for Meyoko,” for example, opened promisingly with crumpling paper and an amplified banjo over a pulsing electronic track, but the trio played it so diffidently that you worried the musicians might fall asleep. Jason Treuting’s “I Am Not (Blank)” followed and, while not entirely (blank), came pretty close: a work whose surface simplicity masked an inner lack of powerful ideas. The group shook off its torpor in Barbara White’s “Gather,” providing the accompaniment to a grainy, jittery black-and-white film projected behind it, and the music was intriguing at first, both well crafted and full of life. But you got the point in a minute or two, and from then on, both music and film went round and round in circles, exploring the compulsive repetition of a meaningless task (you know: commentary on modern existence, et cetera) until the static in this particular mind began leaking out the ears.

Things did pick up after intermission; Martin Matalon’s “Formas de Arena” was a wonderfully engaging work, full of colorful textures and an alert sense of purpose, and Wadden’s superb, dancelike playing on the harp was a joy to hear. Paul Clift’s “How Do You Express X?” had a compelling, otherworldly melancholy to it, and “New Gates” from the brilliant Kaija Saariaho provided some of the most sophisticated and imaginative music of the evening. Alas, it was too little, too late: The concert closed with a smattering of applause, a collective shrug and a hasty rush to the doors.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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