The celebrated British composer Oliver Knussen was in town last week for a series of concerts and workshops at the Library of Congress, and it was impossible to come away without a renewed appreciation of his profound impact on contemporary music — not only as a composer, but also as a conductor and curator. That impact was clear Friday night, when the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (joined by pianist Huw Watkins) put on an insightful, carefully chosen program that tied Knussen’s music to chamber works from the past hundred years — and featured the world premiere of a fine new piece from the American composer Marc Neikrug.
Benjamin Britten was only a teenager when he wrote his “Phantasy, Op. 2,” but you’d never suspect it; it’s a work of warm and sometimes unsettling beauty for oboe and string trio, and Melinda Maxwell played the songlike oboe line (which seemed to float over an often martial, drum-like pulse) with great tenderness. That youthful work was followed by Elliott Carter’s “Epigrams,” written just before the composer’s death two years ago at 103. Age never really diminished Carter’s gigantic mind, and these 12 compressed, complex works are full of surprises and sharp-edged wit — although it’s hard not to hear them as a sort of farewell, and poignant in their own dry-eyed way.
Neikrug’s “Tiger’s Nest” for piano trio (commissioned by the Library and dedicated to Knussen) takes its title from a Buddhist monastery perched on a remote cliff in Bhutan. It’s a place Neikrug says leaves you with “a very particular and poignant feeling,” and the same could be said of the music, which evokes a sense of timelessness and immense space, where natural forces erupt and fall away in a constantly shifting interplay; a kind of meditation on the universe.
Hans Werner Henze’s luminous “Adagio adagio” from 1993 and Frank Bridge’s “Piano Trio No. 2” — a work of lyrical modernism from 1929 — made up the rest of the program. But to these ears, it was Knussen’s own “Cantata (Triptych, Part 3)” for oboe and string trio that provided the most colorful and engaging music of the evening. Like Carter, Knussen writes exceptionally concise and intricate music but with far more charm and natural warmth, and “Cantata” proved to be an absolutely beguiling work. The Birmingham players — who performed with refined musicianship all evening — gave it a spirited and spectacularly detailed reading.
Naoko Takada may be among the best classical marimbists on the planet, but, as she showed at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night, she has the heart of a jazz musician, too. In a recital that ranged from Bach to tangos to complex contemporary works, Takada seemed to dance with her marimba as much as play it, and she brought a kind of spontaneous, playful charm — maybe even a little flirtatiousness — to almost everything she played.
There’s not a lot of classical music for the marimba, but its woody, soft-edged sound translates well, and “Choro No. 1” — a jazzy work originally for guitar by the Argentinian composer Augusto Marcellino — took on a rich, sensual power in Takada’s hands. Her own improvisations on the familiar Japanese folk song “Sakura” (“Cherry Blossoms”), though, were even more impressive. Shimmering, impressionistic, delicately colored, Takada’s playing seemed to conjure a whirlwind of petals in a weightless and constantly changing dance.
Not everything worked quite as well. Her reading of the gigue from Bach’s Suite No. 2 for cello was rushed and a bit disappointing, especially since it followed a riveting account of Bach’s magnificent “Chaconne” (from the Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin), to which she brought thoughtfulness and depth.
But the most striking works of the evening were the ones Takada had commissioned over the past decade. She brought a lyrical touch to Joseph Pereira’s haunting but dancelike “Five Pieces for Solo Marimba,” while Chin Cheng Lin’s “Tango for Naoko” was colorful and almost cinematic in scope, giving Takada a chance to put her virtuosity on full display.
It was Paul Fowler’s “Michiyuki” (“The Road to Death”), though, that provided the most emotionally intense music of the evening. Built around an ancient Japanese tale of a double suicide, it’s a shadowy work full of tolling bells and murmuring ghosts, and at its climax, Takada drew her mallet across her throat as if it were a knife — a theatrical touch that she pulled off with chilling perfection.
When Japan first opened its doors to European music in the late 19th century, it was love at first sight — first with the great Romantic-era composers, and soon with the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. The romance has endured, and Thursday night at the Freer Gallery, the young Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio (with Katherine Chi on piano) explored its legacy, turning in rich, full-blooded accounts of two works by Brahms, some wildly colorful Ravel and music by contemporary Japanese composers that showed how interconnected the two musical cultures have remained.
Still in her 20s, Kamio is a world-class virtuoso — she won a gold medal at the 2007 International Tchaikovsky Competition — with exceptional power and a fine sense of drama, as she showed in the Scherzo movement from Brahms’s “F-A-E” Sonata. It’s an early work, but still full of Brahmsian melancholy and rolling pathos, which Kamio brought off with great sensitivity. Brahms’s more mature Sonata No. 1 followed, delivered with a ravishing tone and polished to gleaming perfection. Perhaps, to some ears, even a little too perfect. For all the power and virtuosity of Kamio’s playing, she never really seemed to reveal much about herself, and there was little of that sense of spontaneity — the intimate, risk-taking depth — that can make Brahms such a profound human experience.
Toshio Hosokawa’s 1994 “Vertical Time Study III” is a rather severe and academic work, built out of spare musical gestures punctuated by periods of silence. It’s unmistakably rooted in late 20th-century European modernism, but it has a distinctively calligraphic and Zen-like beauty, which Kamio brought out in a limpid reading. More immediately charming, though, was Shinichiro Ikebe’s music for the film “Catharsis” — evocative melodies for solo violin that combined folklike simplicity with great sophistication.
But the showstopper of the evening was Maurice Ravel’s gypsy-flavored “Tzigane,” a tour de force for violin full of bluesy bent notes and lavish exoticism. It’s a piece that begs to be played extravagantly, and Kamio and Chi pulled out the stops for a bravura performance that brought the Freer audience to its feet.
The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra has built a reputation for vivid, larger-than-life performances, so it was intriguing on Saturday night to hear a scaled-down version of the group in an evening of music for chamber orchestra. And, while the dull acoustics of George Mason University’s Harris Theater didn’t do the players any favors, the program — a thoughtful mix of (mostly) 20th-century works — proved that the FSO can be nearly as powerful in intimate works as it is with blockbusters.
Music director Christopher Zimmerman, not one to coddle the ears, led off with Edgard Varese’s “Octandre,” a work that is still as explosive as it was in its 1924 debut. But after introducing it with great enthusiasm, Zimmerman suddenly pulled his punches. Noting that the modernist masterpiece “might not be for every taste,” he played only the second movement — and asked the audience to e-mail him if we wanted to hear the rest! Well, yes, maestro — we do. Please! Our ears aren’t going to fall off from a little Varese, for heaven’s sake.
But after that minor hiccup, the evening got back on track with Benjamin Britten’s diaphanous and darkly beautiful “Nocturne, op. 60.” An eight-part song cycle built on texts from British poets, it’s a sort of reverie that explores the shifting, elusive world that lies on the edges of sleep. Tenor William Hite brought subtlety and appropriate strangeness to this deeply imaginative music, weaving his singing into the orchestral accompaniment with delicacy and great nuance.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets stand on their own as some of the most compelling and intimate works in the repertoire. That, alas, didn’t stop Russian violist Rudolf Barshai from inflating several of them into versions for chamber orchestra in 1953, and the “Chamber Symphony in D Major” is what results when you dress up the Fourth Quartet in a big string section, winds, horns and even (horrors!) percussion — and then pull out the stops.
It’s enough to make purists pass a gallstone, and while the arrangement itself really isn’t that bad — and the Fairfax players turned in a fine reading — the work stands as a reminder that more, sometimes, can turn out to be less. A spirited reading of Mozart’s ultra-lyrical Symphony No. 27 in G major, written when the composer was barely out of diapers, brought a lively and light-filled close to the evening.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 20, 2014
Minimalist music isn’t for every taste. The endlessly repeated phrases, the static harmonies, the general sense of cud-chewing — it can all drive the thinking ear crazy. But when it works, it can be close to exalting, as A Winged Victory for the Sullen (a collaboration between composers Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie) showed in a fascinating and often luminous performance at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Wednesday night.
That’s not to say it was an upbeat evening. Opening with “A Symphony Pathetique” from their debut album, O’Halloran (a pianist best known for his score to the film “Marie Antoinette”) and Wiltzie (on keyboard and guitar) were joined by string players from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and delivered a seamless flow of slow, meditative music throughout the evening, weaving simple musical gestures into pulsing, multilayered clouds of sound that seemed to float — almost weightlessly — over a base of low-pitched drones.
The effect was striking, as if it were the music of some distant celestial orchestra, unfolding with stately and impassive and elemental force. And virtually every work on the program — from the gorgeous “We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced” and “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears” to five pieces from their new project “Atomos” and a reworking of Michael Nyman’s first string quartet — evoked that same sense of gravity and simplicity. This was minimalism in skillful hands.
There may be few concert venues in town as civilized as the Evermay Estate in Georgetown, where you’re greeted at the door by the hosts, offered wine and hors d’oeuvres, and generally invited to make yourself at home. But the real pleasure comes from the young virtuosos showcased in Evermay’s ongoing “Overtures” series, which on Friday night featured the flute-violin-cello trio Sonic Escape in an program that wove together folk and classical music with a light and engaging touch.
It was an evening designed to entertain — one of Haydn’s helium-filled “London” trios was about the weightiest thing on the program — and it did so with a wide-ranging, anything-goes sense of fun. Japanese folk music segued into traditional Scandinavian tunes, Bach melodies were cheerfully fused with Irish gigs, and a funny Canadian waltz got the audience clapping along — all of it tied together with running commentary by flutist Shawn Wyckoff and violinist Maria Kaneko Millar.
It all made for a personable and smile-inducing concert, with fine playing from Wyckoff, Millar and cellist Nan-Cheng Chen. The most interesting music of the evening, though, was not the traditional folk arrangements, but two wonderfully imaginative works by Millar herself. “Mosquito Blue” vividly (and humorously) evoked human’s eternal war with mosquitoes, but it was “Walking the Woods in Twilight” that stole the show. A tribute to the slaves who escaped along the Underground Railroad, it opens in the peace and luminous colors of a summer evening, then builds steadily in tension and rising fear until its final release into freedom. An impressive work from a young composer worth keeping an eye on.
If, like any sensible person, you love the string quartets of Joseph Haydn with a passion beyond all reason, you would have done well to be at the Library of Congress on Friday night. The Elias Quartet — a youngish, much-admired outfit out of Britain — was in town, and opened its rather spectacular recital with the Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2: the last (and maybe the greatest) quartet Haydn wrote.
The Elias players don’t have a particularly rich sound — the word “astringent” comes to mind — but they make up for it with deft phrasing, a fine sense of dramatic pacing and seamless ensemble work. But even more impressive was the interpretive complexity they brought to the Haydn, a perfectly balanced mix of vitality, depth, formal elegance and that playful, flirtatious wit that makes all of Haydn’s quartets so impossible to resist.
There’s not a lot of flirtatious wit in Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky, Op. 28.” It’s better described as a “voiceless requiem in 15 parts” (as lead violinist Sarah Bitloch put it), and it’s steeped in almost unbearable sorrow. But it’s a delicately beautiful work as well, whose concise, resonant fragments blossom into perfect little haikus of sound, as if the mysteries of the universe were being whispered into your ears. The Elias players turned in a subtle, intricately detailed reading.
The evening closed with Beethoven’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2, one of the great “Razumovsky” quartets. The Elias players’ rather bright sound — which served them so well in the Haydn and Kurtag — may have been a slight drawback here, but it was a bold, often thrilling performance nonetheless, from the cosmic meditations of the “Molto Adagio” (which Beethoven said he wrote after “contemplating the harmony of the spheres”) to the galloping “Presto” that closes the work. But some of the most purely enchanting music of the evening came in the encore, a Scottish “Lament for Mulroy” by Donald Grant, the ensemble’s second violinist.