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Music review: Cellist Maya Beiser gives her all at Atlas Theater

Avant-garde cellist Maya Beiser has presided over some pretty out-there multimedia pieces in the past, a la Laurie Anderson, but Friday evening she presented a relatively staid, music-centered program at the Atlas Theater in collaboration with composer/pianist Michael Harrison.

Much was made, in both the program notes and Beiser’s spoken introductions, of Harrison’s emphasis on “just” intonation, where the piano is tuned in strict mathematical proportions rather than the one-size-fits-all “tempered” tuning used today. This is mostly just fluff; few listeners would hear any difference were they not told to listen for it, and the adjustment meant that the encore, the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria,” had to be rendered in the wrong key (D) since the piano was specifically tuned to it for everything else.

The duo is touring to support a new CD, “Time Loops,” featuring music by Harrison and his clear influence, the Estonian mystic Arvo Pärt. The principal work in both cases is Harrison’s large-scale “Just Ancient Loops.” It, like the two Pärt works included in the program, is for live cello plus several additional pre-recorded tracks. This is by now a fairly commonplace genre, most famously popularized in Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint,” but the piece was certainly the highlight of the program, along with “Like Smoke” by Evan Ziporyn, where Beiser added an eerie vocal line to the live and recorded cellos. “Just Ancient Loops” was the only work all evening that offered any rhythmic liveliness; the rest was, as Beiser admitted, “kind of Zen.” Its final section, “Ascension,” was an inversion of and tribute to Pärt’s “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” the latter’s cascading scales going down, the former’s going up.

The two Pärt works offered — “Fratres” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” — are musical clay, each having been arranged and rearranged for a wide variety of instruments. Nothing wrong with what Beiser did, except the live cello was often less audible than the pre-recorded ones. There were also premieres of two “Raga Preludes” by Harrison, the only fully live works of the evening (although still coming through loudspeakers like everything else, which should have been unnecessary here). The flowing, meditative, tonally simple pieces offered a pleasing meld of North African and pre-renaissance European sensibilities.

Beiser gave her all for each work. She is a technically average cellist, but a sultry, charismatic performer.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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