|Gerald Barry is the latest composer featured in the Gardner series. (CLIVE BARDA)|
The music of Irish composer Gerald Barry, 55, is devilishly witty, fiendishly virtuosic, and as prone to digression as "Tristram Shandy." His compositions follow their own logic, lingering aimlessly for a time before driving forward with frightening velocity, or veering in an eyeblink from Lilliputian pizzicato passages to Brobdingnagian chord clusters.
Thursday night, the Gardner Museum presented Barry's tumultuous music in the latest installment of the Composer Portraits series. "Piano Quartet No. 1" (1992), the opening work, featured the athletic pianist Molly Morkoski. Here, snippets of Irish folk melody were near the surface, expounded with hiccupping time signatures and a canonical layering of the melodic fragments. Queasy, becalmed string passages alternated with pounding piano interludes.
"Octet" (1995) ushered a new group onstage: two flutes, two clarinets, violin, cello, piano, and marimba. More pulsating and staccato than the previous piece, "Octet" moved to tick-tock rhythms, the rich woodwind and marimba sonorities outlining the abstract but still audibly Irish melodic fragments.
Morkoski returned for the solo piano piece "Los Angeles" (2007), in its second performance and Boston premiere. It opened with simple, conventional-sounding phrases before Morkoski literally began slapping the keyboard. Soon, a dialogue emerged between left and right hand slaps, continuing as it ramped down to spare lines. Later, the pianist accompanied herself with simple chords as she sang the words of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to a new melody.
The next two pieces were played by variants of the "Octet" group. "___________" (1979) was a repetitive exercise in ascending scales that would provide the perfect soundtrack to a hypothetical cat and mouse cartoon set on an escalator, as penned by Samuel Beckett. "Bob" (1989), titled after Edmund Spencer's "Bower of Bliss," was highlighted by the virtuosic clarinet duet of Carol McGonnell and Michael Norsworthy.
For the finale, "Piano Quartet No. 2" (1996), MVP Morkoski emerged wearing arm warmers, the better to protect her elbows as she played the huge, clanging, full-forearm note-clusters that opened the piece. Pizzicato strings tiptoed in and took over for a time. Then brief, nervous piano lines led to an extended passage of ghostly, harmonic strings, providing an ominously calm window before the obsessive, pummeling, cathartic, tempestuous ending.