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

Whether as a composer or as a pianist, Amy Williams is first and foremost, in her heart of hearts, a chamber musician.

“Chamber music is my love when it comes to music, as a listener and performer,” she said in an onstage interview during a Composer Portraits concert devoted to her work at the Miller Theater at Columbia University on Thursday evening.

Miller’s composer portraits tend to focus on pieces for small groups, and therefore represent some artists more fully than others. Williams, born in 1969 and now a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has, in her relatively tight body of work, written little but small-group pieces. Many of them involve the piano, which brought her to Thursday’s concert as a performer, too, and gave the audience another crucial facet of her musical life. (She is the longtime half, with Helena Bugallo, of the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo.)

The four pieces on the program at Miller were for combinations of piano and strings, and featured the JACK Quartet, which performed on its own, as part of a piano quintet and with two of its members joining Williams in a trio.

Williams and JACK — the violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, the violist John Pickford Richards and the cellist Jay Campbell — have collaborated for over a decade and form a happy partnership. The quartet has the pristine clarity to execute all the challenges Williams calls for: the supersoft passages and tight coordination; the complex, exposed unison rhythms; the variety of touch among the four players; and a mood both easygoing and changeable.

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