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Review: A Musician’s Portrait, as Both Composer and Pianist

Review: A Musician’s Portrait, as Both Composer and Pianist

At the beginning of “Cineshape 2,” Williams naturally emphasizes differences among the instruments, like the contrast between volatility from the viola and held notes on the cello. But gently melded together by the piano — Williams’s use of that easily dominant instrument tends to be unusually restrained — they blend more and more.

“Bells and Whistles” featured Otto, the violinist, and Campbell, the cellist, making ricocheting and tapping sounds, and whistling slides up the fingerboard. At the piano, Williams sometimes reached into the instrument and manipulated the strings as she played, giving notes a metallic halo or, conversely, a curt percussiveness. A swath of the piece has a waltzing beat, though the group later enters a section of machine-like fever before an ethereal ending.

“Richter Textures” (2011), with seven sections that flow together, originated as a nod to paintings by Gerhard Richter. The textures are kaleidoscopically shifting: You can hear the luminous smoothness of colored glass; the gritty lushness of sandpaper; the cold slipperiness of ice; slicing; brushiness; murmuring, and then snapping. At one point, the first violin and cello share a broodingly dissonant elegy out of something by Shostakovich. There are moments of agitation, but they pass back into uneasy calm.

The Miller Theater commissioned “Tangled Madrigal,” which had its premiere on Thursday and, inspired by a madrigal by Nicola Vicentino (1511-76), will pair well with the medieval transcriptions that are in JACK’s repertory alongside its contemporary specialties.

The piece begins spidery and insubstantial, with a sense of sketchiness or of fragments slowly reconstituting, and then it whispers of the undulating arpeggios of the prelude to Bach’s first cello suite. Williams never directly quotes her Vicentino source, but combining the elegant formality of antique styles with a contemporary sound world, she maintains her characteristic, tricky balance between sobriety and mischievousness — a serious fun that’s all her own.

Composer Portraits: Amy Williams

Performed on Thursday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, Manhattan.

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