After sampling opening night at Snug Harbor, one of the more outré venues at the third annual Charlotte New Music Festival, it was only fitting that I take a look at the site where the most concerts are being staged, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Having attended numerous lunchtime and after-work concerts back in the years when the Chamber Music at St. Peter’s series was a monthly fixture on the Charlotte music scene, I had some misgivings about the atmosphere and acoustics of the cavernous hall. My hopes rose when I learned that, instead of the main sanctuary, the Freya String Quartet  concert would be staged in the upstairs meeting hall where post-concert receptions were held for the defunct monthly series. Just as promising, when I opened my festival program booklet, I found that there would be a wide range of other instrumental configurations besides the string quartet – and that new works by nine different composers were on the bill. Aside from CNMF founder Elizabeth Kowalski, who emceed, there were also nine musicians shuttling in and out of the room.

Jabez Co had an interesting combination of styles and instruments in the lead-off piece, “SUPERbolt,” calling upon flutist Erinn Frechette, pianist Anatoly Larkin, violinist Ashley Buckley, and bass clarinetist Chris Miele. The music started off – and ended – as if the Filipino composer had intended a flute quartet, with Frechette getting all the difficulties simulating the lightning referenced in the title, raucous and aggressive in the treble, while the others accompanied in a somewhat minimalist style. In between the theme bookending the composition, the score became tender, somber, and eventually eerie. Thunder followed, and there was a regathering of energy for the closing lightning strike. As the tension built, we saw Larkin doing something under the hood of the piano that I’d never witnessed before: relocating the score inside the piano, he began playing the bass strings with a pair of mallets, a feat I would have thought was impossible to execute with precision. Refugees from a bereft xylophone, the mallets certainly produced an odd rumble that served the composer’s purpose.

Chinese-American composer Weijun Chen brought us “Canoe,” the first of the two prime reasons that the Freya Quartet was justly designated as the core of this disparate concert. By way of introduction, the composer read his own translation of the poem that inspired him, Cheng Gu‘s poem, “I Am a Canoe.” With Buckley moving to the second violin, Jason Neukom joined her as the other violin, along with violist Jason Hohn and cellist Katya Janpoladyan. Neukom and Janpoladyan had the most telling passages when strands of melody broke loose from the quartet harmonies as the score replicated the drift, the loneliness, the longing, the emotion, and the despair of the poem. Toward the end, there were ethereal passages that jumped beyond the template of the poetry and showed that Chen, unlike many of his contemporaries, is unafraid of lingering in intense expression. The episode felt whole before leading, with telling input from Hohn and Janpoladyan, to a desolate calm that hinted at the mystery of Bartók and the bleakness of Shostakovich in their landmark quartets.

The Freyas returned after intermission with a 10-minute sampling from John Allemeier‘s newest major work, Deep Water: The Murder Ballads, developed at UNC Charlotte in conjunction with dancer/choreographer E.E. Balcos and recently released as an Albany CD with the Madison Park Quartet playing the opening “Poor Ellen” quartet. For the CNMF concert, the Freyas presented the last three of the quartet’s five movements. Allemeier’s composition, like the original folk ballad, takes its inspiration from the 1892 murder of Ellen Smith by her lover Peter DeGraaf, but beside weaving in the folk melody into the third movement, the composer also entwines a snip of “Am I a Soldier of the Cross” – the hymn DeGraff sang as he walked to the gallows – into his final “Regret” movement. While the Freyas captured the moody gravity of the opening, their interpretation of the middle “Tragedy” section was faster and livelier than the CD, so I found myself thinking of Neukom and Buckley more as mountain fiddlers, and their Winston-Salem, where Smith was killed, as closer to bluegrass country.

Craig Bove‘s “Apparition,” a piano trio based on Webern’s Opus 27, movement 2, was the only piece on the program that anyone could accuse of being cerebral, for it was indeed spare and gnomic in the Webern vein, though not in the least unpleasant. There were interesting programmatic motives behind all of the other pieces. “Doubt, Despair, and Dissension” Tyler Primm’s quartet for flute, bass clarinet, viola, and contrabass, told the Orpheus story from the climactic point where the story customarily ends, when he fails to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld and death, bringing us forward to the mythical musician’s death. “Vignette No. 4” from Claudia Queen‘s 7 Vignettes for 7 Choreographers, was a musical portrait of Mary Ward (better known as Maya Aubrey) showing her serene side – separated from a companion piece depicting her rowdy side – set as a viola sonata that showcased Hohn’s exquisite tone on the instrument.

Claire Ritter had the distinction of being the only composer at the concert who performed her own work, and her “Three Selections from the 2014-2015 Mirrors Project” was the only composition that embraced electronics. The jazz stylings that Ritter performed to accompany three photography-film segments by JoAnn Sieburg-Baker – “Sunshades,” “Mirror,” and an assemblage gleaned from Ritter’s personal collection of images, “Blue Grits” – was my wife Sue’s favorite of the evening. But I must confess that I was so captivated by Sieburg-Baker’s projections, especially the sunshades she drew on familiar and unfamiliar photos, that I really didn’t pay sufficient attention to Ritter’s music.

Ian Goodrich‘s “Monna Innominata,” setting two poems by Christina Rossetti for a flute trio, was the only piece that exposed any shortcomings in the spacious St. Peter’s meeting hall. While Kowalski and all the composers introducing their work had the use of a microphone, Larkin didn’t as he recited Rossetti’s poetry from behind the keyboard. Instead of pleasantly splitting our attention between flute and poetry, the balance shifted decisively toward Frechette’s virtuosic flute, for which Goodrich, an accomplished oboist himself, seemed to have a special affinity. We could hardly hear a word of Rossetti’s poetry as Larkin’s voice wafted up to the a-shaped ceiling. A live mic or a prerecorded reading would have helped immensely.

Larkin’s eloquence was heard to better advantage in the closing piece of the evening, “Tsunami Warning” for piano, bass clarinet, and contrabass by José Rodrigo Navarro Belbruno. The composer deployed Miele to subterrannean depths and gave him opportunities for leaping into clarinet range. Like the similarly themed “SUPERbolt,” “Tsunami” sent Larkin under the hood of the piano. On his first expedition, Larkin must have had his part memorized, for when he stood up, he didn’t bring his score with him. But the later voyage to the interior called for a longer sojourn, and Larkin needed to read his music to gauge and time his strumming of the strings. Miele had some squeals and other special effects to add to the sonic adventure, but the truly radical eruptions came from Larkin after he returned to his seat for the last time. A couple of Larkin’s fiercest attacks were sustained by Miele pouncing precisely on the end of them with the bass clarinet. These protracted tones gave way to a thin, delicate ending from Larkin that may have given the composer his first realization of just how beautiful the writing was.

The Charlotte New Music Festival continues through June 28. For details, see our calendar.