More than any other, I looked forward to this particular musical offering, a winter recital performed by a champion of the “new and unfamiliar” in the Nelson Music Room on the campus of Duke University. A Professor of the Practice of Music and member of the Ciompi Quartet, Jonathan Bagg and his colleague, Philip Amalong, piano, performed music by Richard Rodney Bennett (b.1936), Edison Denisov (1929-96), Andrew Norman (b.1979), Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Toru Takemitsu (1930-96).

A friendly and hospitable instructor, Professor Bagg greeted the audience and introduced Mr. Amalong, a new member of the technology team at Zenph Sound Innovations, Inc., in Durham; he is also a recording artist and composer. Bagg offered mini-tutorials throughout that helped us better understand the works they were to present. Twentieth-century music can sometimes be thorny and difficult, but this audience seemed thoroughly engaged, a tribute to the music department’s gregarious faculty member.

There were hefty pieces by Denislov and Schubert, but my favorites were the short, colorful lesser-known works. Like Olivier Messiaen, the largely self-taught Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu was inspired by nature. “A Bird Came down the Walk” (1994) in this case, was inspired by the poem by Emily Dickinson. Aside from rhythmic challenges, the piece calls for sensitive and careful placement of the bow. From the lightly tinted whisper in sul tasto (close to the fingerboard) to brilliant, clear jewel tones and burnished hues sul ponticello (on the bridge), Bagg effortlessly captured the color and texture – “jagged around the edges, but gentle in the middle.” (The words in quotations are Bagg’s.)

Bagg introduced Andrew Norman’s Sabina for solo viola (2008), a piece written in response to the composer’s experience visiting the Santa Sabina Church in Rome. For a brief moment, my eyes wandered. And as the refracted light from the oak tree outside, traveling through the slots of the Venetian blinds, and into the recital hall, I could imagine the thoughts of Andrew Norman, the young, adventurous composer whose work we were privileged to hear. Jonathan Bagg ingeniously captured the spirit – the light through the windows, the color, and the textures of the carved wooden doors of the church, as he generously shared the music with us – a first hearing for me. Bagg and Amalong communicated and performed well. I hope that we will hear more of them together. Closing with Franz Schubert’s delightful Sonata in A minor, D.821 (Arpeggione) (1824), it was a glorious afternoon.