Following a concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s the previous evening, the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble presented a wide-ranging menu of chamber music by composers from Latin America at Hill Hall Auditorium, under the auspices of the UNC Department of Music, and the William S. Newman Artists Series.

The first offering was Last Round for string nonet by Osvaldo Golijov, who seems to be the latest fashion in imported composers (from Argentina, he lives in Massachusetts). Listening to the work, I wondered if the reference was to boxing or drinking (no notes were provided, alas, a serious drawback for a program like this). The music was noisy, busy, full of the histrionic self-importance of the tango – and for these ears, at any rate, there was not much to recommend it – no beauty, no striking gestures, no expression, just sound and fury (you know the rest…). More attractive, more interesting, more characteristic, were the Four Pre-Inca Sketches for flute and cello by Gabriela Lena Frank, with their evocation of Andean sounds. Frank’s writing for the flute was very effective (and superbly played by Elizabeth Mann); that for cello, not so much (too much unfocused scraping with no harmonic center, though gamely played by Myron Lutzke).

Clovis Pereira (b. 1932) is a Brazilian composer little-known inside Brazil or out. His Three Northeastern Pieces for string quintet, heard next, have been recorded for Nimbus by the Quinteto da Paraiba, and are an effective translation of folk idioms to a classical context. St. Luke’s playing, however, betrayed a lack of familiarity with the folk music that the piece references. The players approached the work with bravura, rather than the sweetness it needed,  and there were some moments of sour intonation. The first half closed with two tiny pieces by Cubans Paquito d’Rivera and Guido Lopez-Gavilan – the first, “Wapango,” a tasty little bon-bon, well made, and the second, “Mi Menor Conga,” a forgettable trivial piece of total froth.

The second half began with works by Piazzolla and Golijov for the same combination (flute, clarinet, string quartet, and contrabass) – “La Muerte del Angel,” and “Lullaby and Doina.” For me Piazzolla (though of course, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, yes?) shares the same qualities as Golijov (referenced above), and “Muerte” did not stand out above the commonplace. The Golijov was much the same broth as Last Round, though here the flavor was Romanian rather than porteño. No thanks!

With the first chords of the closing work, the extremely early (1911) piano Trio No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, we entered a completely different world (one might be forgiven for thinking, “Ah, now some real music….”), though given the traditional medium, the approach to form is quite unusual and modern. (Even so, the idiom is so different from later works by the master that you would never know they were by the same man). The trio, with difficult passages and plenty of notes for all three musicians, was beautifully played and well-balanced. Laurels to all.