The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, as a part of its Sights & Sounds on Sundays concert series, invited the Blue Ridge Chamber Players to perform some trios at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The trio, consisting of flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead, cellist Nick Lampo, and pianist Tomoko Deguchi, played four musical suites that had some connection to visual art, taking inspiration from the Museum’s permanent collection. The Museum offers a tour of the featured collection an hour preceding every Sights & Sounds concert.

The first work, Trois Aquarelles, or Three Watercolors, was written by French composer Philippe Gaubert around the same time that Impressionist watercolor artists Renoir and Monet were popular. Visual art and music were often premiered in the salon setting, so it is entirely possible that Gaubert’s work could have been composed for one of these watercolor debuts. The three-movement suite had no specific message, explained Lampo, and conveyed a general feeling instead, much like the watercolors. The performers had great chemistry, each playing like soloists but with the high level of communication that chamber music demands.

Next on the program was the premiere of a commission by the ensemble for the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. Ronald Keith Parks, a North Carolina composer, chose several of the works from the museum’s collection to inspire his musical themes, making up the eight movements of his \ Elements. He chose a variety of works including the large sculpture outside of the museum called “Three Elements” by Ronald Bladen, from which the full work derives its name. The styles are vastly different, reflecting the types of visual art they represent, from the sultry, exotic Robert Motherwell – “Window Over Madrid” to the highly energetic and bold George Bireline – “Matisse Window.”

The overall effect of the work was one of strolling down the halls of the art museum and being captivated, in turn, by all the different artists, much to the audience’s delight. The accessibility of a North Carolina native who has spent time at this art museum gave the suite a delightful familiarity, and the players were especially thoughtful to have commissioned it in Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s honor.

Following the commissioned work, the ensemble played Charles Abramovic’s Beasts. Written in 2002, this composition is meant to present a medieval bestiary. Three movements based on mythological creatures are prefaced with their own conducti, or plainchants – but in an abstract, contemporary instrumental setting. The trio did a wonderful job capturing the different qualities of the beasts, contrasting the animals hungry for human flesh, such as the “Manticora” and the “Leucrota” to the more mysterious, swanlike “Cygnus.”

Perhaps the climax of the concert, George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whales) served as the finale. Lampo explained that Crumb is known for extended techniques and experimental music. This work has three pages of instructions for the performers, including a note that they should be dressed all in black, with black masks, and should perform in darkness except for the faintest dark blue light. “We are taking some liberties,” explained Lampo as he asked that the audience overlook this deviation from the instructions. The idea of this piece is to eliminate all sense of humanity from the performers so that there is only the music and its atmosphere.

The extended techniques in Crumb’s work included prepared piano: a standard piano with metal pieces and prescribed objects placed on top of and between the strings inside the lid so that when keys are struck, the strings vibrate against the objects and produce unusual sounds. Pianist Deguchi also plucked the strings and used the pedals to create other interesting effects. Lampo tuned his cello in scordatura (other than standard), then used a variety of pitch bending and harmonics to make the cello sing like a whale.

The most thrilling extended techniques, however, came from the flute. Whitehead opened the work by singing while playing; giving notes an ethereal buzzing quality. She also used trills that changed the quality of the tone rather than the pitch, varying vibrato, and percussive strikes with the tongue and lips while playing pitches. The overall quality was one of primordial chaos that still retained some sense of mysterious beauty, thanks to the highest level of interpretation and synchronization between these high-quality performers.

The next Sights & Sounds on Sundays concert will be “Symphony Winds” on March 17, featuring a wind quintet made up of North Carolina Symphony musicians playing French music by contemporaries of sculptor Auguste Rodin. For more information, visit the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.