You don’t have to be told that “Alma” by Tania León is meant to evoke a day in the life a bird. When flutist Jennifer Grim opened her March 7 concert with this striking piece, I immediately associated its loping gestures with the songs of tropical birds. Flute and piano figures glanced off each other, keeping a kind of mystical time together – and tinged with tension. It’s a dangerous world, whether you’re a bird trying to survive a shrinking habitat or a human musician trying to finance a new album and tour.
“Alma” also includes a pointedly staccato, folk dance-like section. And it features a few rough tones and bent notes, which hinted at the more radical music Grim and pianist Michael Sheppard performed later in the program.
Jennifer Grim must be one of the finest flutists of our time. In “Homeland” by Allison Loggins-Hull, for unaccompanied flute, she showed how much expressive depth she can conjure with ostensibly simple trills. Played almost entirely with standard techniques (a few microtones aside), bumped up with some ghostly reverb, the performance displayed Grim’s superfine control of dynamics and tone. Moody and dreamlike, the piece reads like a stream-of-consciousness monologue. The charismatic soloist conveyed its narrative flow not only sonically but in her performance body language.
Two boldly plotted pieces by David Sanford followed. Both “Offertory” from 2021 and “Klatka Still” from 2009 begin with 12-tone scatter, but both, and especially the newer piece, unfold into multiple stylistic and sonic dimensions.
The composer, whom The New York Times has called “a protean talent,” told us that “Offertory” was influenced by John Coltrane’s “spiritual awakening.” It finds the piano rumbling in the bass as the flute slowly bends long, sad notes, before bursting into muscly, unaccompanied runs. The piano rejoins with prickly stabs, and the music progresses with increasing energy as if fighting to hold on – to the listener, but also to the boundaries of its own imaginative universe.
Towards the end, a series of falling portamentos sound like rockets dropping on a dark landscape. Heavy piano-bass, reminiscent of Sanford’s jazzy “Promise” (from Lara Downes’ America Again album), underpins furiously flying flute runs. After a quiet passage the piece ends with a return of angst. Grim described Valerie Coleman’s “Wish (Sonatine)” performed later, as a “tour-de-force” for the musicians. But “Offertory” had that heft too.
“Klatka Still” was similarly evocative. Angry tone clusters and almost military staccato aggression subside into a pastoral scene. Sheppard seemed to simulate falling raindrops on the keyboard; Grim’s flute unfurled a silky passage of muted coloration.
“Wish,” a musical evocation of the Middle Passage, begins with a song of quietude suggesting the dawn. Quickly, storms arise. The music suggests songs of home sung over crashing waves evoked by a discernible 4/4 beat. (In this piece’s creative piano writing I especially noticed the gorgeous sound of the piano at National Sawdust. The shape of the small space somehow produces exceptional acoustics.) Complex harmonic writing decorated the continuing, mostly steady rhythm. The piano’s tone clusters and the flute’s wails and screeches indeed brought into the imagination the horror of abduction into slavery. A tour-de-force indeed.
Grim took the stage alone for the final work, a realization by the flutist of a pandemic-era piece by Julia Wolfe called “Oxygen” – a piece written for 12 flutes! Switching among three instruments in the flute family, Grim electronically triggered cascades of sound that enveloped the room in coruscating rhythmic cries from flutes (or “flutes”) of every range. I have never gotten Julia Wolfe, but could not help but admire the effort and creativity that went into Grim’s solo performance of a piece written for a dozen of her ilk.
An ilk of whom there are very few, actually. Jennifer Grim is a treasure, and Michael Sheppard makes an ideal musical partner for her seemingly boundless talent. Find out more about what she’s up to at her website and read about her album in The New York Times.