Is there a better antidote to the chill of this endless winter than the hot-blooded music of Spain? Well, okay — maybe tickets to the Caribbean. But a close second was Tuesday night’s impassioned performance by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and guitar legend Sharon Isbin, who brought two hours of fiery, flamenco-steeped music to the Terrace Theater as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Iberian Suite: Global Arts Remix” festival.
A subtle if slightly austere guitarist, Isbin displayed her superb technique and suggestive sense of poetry throughout the evening, particularly in familiar short works for solo guitar that included the glowing “Asturias” by Isaac Albéniz, Francisco Tárrega’s heartbreaking “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” and others by Enrique Granados and Joaquin Rodrigo.
But the real star of the evening turned out to be the less-familiar Leonard, a rising young mezzo with a radiant, bell-like voice and a captivating sense of drama. The duo opened with four folk-based songs from the “Canciones Españolas Antiguas” by Federico Garcia Lorca (in arrangements by Isbin), and Leonard immediately seemed in her element, probing the dark, unsettling veins of tragedy and pathos — from blood feuds to early deaths — that run through every note. This is music that, as Lorca said, asks “a terrible question that has no answer,” and Leonard dug deeply into their mysteries, proving herself more than just a pretty voice.
That said, what a voice it is — supple, perfectly controlled, capable of great power, but with a lilt, purity and expressive warmth. Then there’s her engaging charm: After singing a lullaby from Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Cinco canciónes negras,” Leonard coaxed a young girl from the audience to join her onstage for an impromptu dance to “Canto negro.”
The duo, who played with a deep sense of connection and conviction all evening, closed with a richly colored reading of the “Siete canciones populares Españolas” by Manuel de Falla, and a standing ovation brought them back for a final (and spectacular) encore, Agustín Lara’s “Granada.”
The National Gallery of Art’s two-week American Music Festival — one of the most adventurous and exciting celebrations of contemporary music here in years — closed Sunday with a performance by the Third Coast Percussion ensemble that proved just how vital and fertile new American music really is. Playing on instruments as varied as Tibetan singing bowls and amplified Magic Markers, the ensemble transformed the museum’s West Garden Court into a vast, resonating sonic playground, presenting four recent works that ran from mischievous humor to bluesy sensuality — delivered with virtuosity and deft, precisely timed wit.
The evening opened with “Resounding Earth,” an ambitious new work by Augusta Read Thomas. Played on an array of 300 bells, gongs and other instruments, it’s an overtly spiritual work whose movements are titled “Invocation,” “Mantra” and the like. But there’s nothing New Agey about this music, no numbing yoga-music serenity. “Earth” burst irrepressibly, even joyously, with life, dancing from the shimmering of Burmese temple gongs to brutal, almost shrapnel-like explosions of sound, in a sort of elemental and rapturous song of the Earth.
Mark Applebaum’s playful “Straitjacket” opened the second half of the program. Applebaum is a gleefully uninhibited composer, and “Straitjacket” has little use for the conventional lines dividing music, theater and art. Accompanied by the ensemble, guest percussionist Ross Karre acted out sounds with his hands, played on a drum kit that included a hard hat and plastic bucket, and drew on a giant sketch pad with a squeaking, amplified pen. Mere antics? Maybe. But Applebaum has a superb ear and an equally well-tuned mind, and you’d have to be awfully sour not to think the work was a delight.
Tyshawn Sorey brought a sensuous turn to the evening with his “Trio for Harold Budd.” A bluesy work for piano, percussion and alto flute (played with soulful elegance by Rachel Beetz), it had a rich North African flavor, dark and exotic and altogether captivating. But it was the world premiere of Thomas DeLio’s “sound/shivering/silence II” that provided some of the most sublime music of the evening. Moving through the audience, the Third Coast players wove two brief poems by the American poet Cid Corman into DeLio’s spare, quietly eloquent music, which seemed to rise into the vaulted space and hang there, weightless and not quite of this Earth, with the distant intangible beauty of starlight.
Is there any string quartet today as flat-out brilliant as the JACK Quartet? This virtuosic young ensemble has emerged over the past decade as the go-to quartet for contemporary music, tying impeccable musicianship to intellectual ferocity and a take-no-prisoners sense of commitment — as its players (with guest pianist Eric Huebner) proved in an afternoon of new American music at the National Gallery of Art on Wednesday.
Part of the museum’s ongoing American Music Festival (which runs through March 22), the concert traced an arc from Morton Feldman’s 1950 spare, achingly delicate “Intermission 1” for solo piano to “The Dead Man,” an often brutal piece by the reigning genius of the New York avant-garde, John Zorn.
The central works on the program, though, may have been the most compelling. The program notes for “Le Journal du Corps,” a 2010 quartet by Lewis Nielson, were a little alarming — references to Frantz Fanon, “colonial imposition” and “corporate purchasing power” threatened a tedious screed. But the music itself seemed almost whispered, drawn in quiet gestures that echoed the human agonies it explored and coalesced finally into an exalting movement that had the grace of a communal prayer. In short, a work of serene dignity and subtle emotional power, as spiritual as it was political.
Eric Huebner returned for Roger Reynolds’s “imagE/piano” from 2007 — a brief piece that blends intricate construction, probing intellectual depth and sheer exuberance into a sweeping whole — and gave a perfectly calibrated reading of Stefan Wolpe’s “Form for Piano” (1959).
Some of the most high-octane music of the afternoon, though, came in David Felder’s “Stuck-stücke for String Quartet.” Exploding out of the gate, it rarely pulled back from edge-of-the-seat intensity throughout its 13 short movements, with violinist Ari Streisfeld leading a performance that left scorch marks on the ears.
The afternoon closed with a quartet from Zorn, a composer so volcanic it’s a wonder he doesn’t just burst into flame. “The Dead Man” from 1990 is not exactly a walk in the park with puppies — Zorn himself describes it as “sadomasochistic” — but like all his music, it’s beautifully made, full of strange and unsettling turns, and fascinating to its bones. The JACK players turned in a richly colored and theatrical performance — at one point slashing their bows through the air like whips — that brought out the astounding range of Zorn’s remarkable imagination.
The lines between musical genres have become so thoroughly blurred in the postmodern world (viz. the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s “Blues Symphony” a few weeks ago at Strathmore) that they barely exist anymore. And that’s a good thing, particularly for imaginative young composers such as Douglas Detrick, who brought his AnyWhen Ensemble to the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon for “The Bright and Rushing World” — an extended, 10-movement suite that draws naturally from the jazz and classical worlds.
Detrick describes the work as a journey — a young man heading out into the world for the first time — and it opened with the composer on trumpet laying out the theme that runs through the work. The other members of the quintet (saxophones, cello, bassoon and drum set) soon joined in, and over the next hour, engaged in a sort of picaresque roam through Detrick’s sound-world, forming and reforming into different combinations, shifting from one colorful, and often engaging, episode to the next.
Despite some fine playing by all the instrumentalists, it was a rather mild journey, and the work never seemed to gain much traction. Less “bright and rushing” than subdued and meandering, it came across as a succession of meditative sketches, with ideas suggested, gently passed around and then set aside, without developing a strong narrative or building into a powerful whole. And whenever the music started to come alive — as it did several times with a sense of urgency and purpose and direction, it would suddenly shy away and retreat to musical navel-gazing. Pleasant enough, but without much sense of risk or passion or of anything really at stake. By the end, you felt like you’d been on a stroll around the block rather than a journey into the burning heart of life.
That said, Detrick has a fine ear for timbre and texture, a mastery of classical and jazz styles, and an engaging technique on the trumpet. The AnyWhen players — Hashem Assadullahi on saxophones, Shirley Hunt on cello, Steve Vacchi on bassoon and Ryan Biesack at the drum set — played beautifully together, with obvious rapport and a fine sense of balance.
Simon Shaheen, the much-admired Palestinian violin and oud virtuoso, brought his ensemble to the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Saturday night for a concert that fused traditional Middle Eastern music with everything from jazz to flamenco to Indian ragas. That may sound like a recipe for the soggy, superficial mush that often gets passed off as “world fusion” music, but the evening turned out to be a probing, personal and convincing exploration of the currents that run through different musical traditions — and tie the ancient past to the 21st century.
Shaheen has long been at the forefront of new Arabic music, and much of the evening was devoted to his own compositions, from a medley built around “Saraab” (an atmospheric work that evokes mirages and the slow, rolling rhythms of a caravan through the desert) to the jazzy, flamenco-flavored “Al-Qantara.” Arabic to its core, steeped in tradition but unconstrained by it, Shaheen’s music seemed always to be reaching into history to discover the meaning of the present — and the beauty it found there was striking. Bassam Saba’s captivating, shape-shifting improvisations on reed flute in “Saraab” were poignant in an almost otherworldly way, and the improvisations (known as “taqasim”) by all the players — particularly Shaheen’s brother Najib on oud — favored subtlety and expressiveness over mere displays of virtuosity.
Some of the most provocative music, though, came when the young sarod player Sashank Navaladi joined the ensemble for improvisations with Shaheen on two Indian ragas. The Raag Jhinjhoti and the Raag Rageshri are both late-evening ragas, and Shaheen (first on oud and later on violin) opened by trading dark, brooding lines with Navaladi. As the pace slowly picked up, the music seemed to shift away from Indian traditions and toward those of the Middle East — drawing, with great naturalness and insight, a connection between the two.
That sense of connection — and of deep authenticity — was the hallmark of the evening, which included works by such notable Arab composers as Mohammad Al Qassabji, whose “Zikrayati” was both elegant and deeply expressive. But it may have been the fiery closing finale by Egyptian composer (and oud player) Riyad al-Sunbati that provided the most excitement of the evening — and brought the audience to a standing ovation.
There’s nothing easy about 90 minutes of solo violin music. It’s a high-wire act for any violinist — not only must he carry the concert’s entire melodic, harmonic and rhythmic weight single-handedly; he also must make the music so compelling that any limitations of the solo form just seem to vanish. The challenges are huge, but as the Hungarian virtuoso Kristóf Baráti proved in a gripping, extraordinarily powerful performance at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, so are the rewards.
The six sonatas and partitas that Bach wrote for unaccompanied violin make up the spiritual heart of this repertoire, and Baráti opened with two Bach-inspired sonatas from 1924 by the celebrated Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Rather than tossing off these virtuosic showpieces as mere appetizers, though, Baráti probed into them with extraordinary intensity and an almost orchestral range of expression. Virtually motionless, eyes closed to the world, he seemed to immerse himself in the sonatas as much as play them — a self-effacing lack of showmanship that let the music emerge with unexpected power.
But if the Ysaÿe works were impressive, Baráti’s reading of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, (BWV 1004) — the concert’s center of gravity — was nothing less than revelatory. A five-part dance suite that concludes with a searing chaconne, the partita may be the greatest of all works for solo violin, and Baráti’s performance was, in a word, masterful. Probing, austere, meditative, it rang with a rare sense of authenticity and almost majestic scope.
Bach was also the inspiration for Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, BB 124,— which opens with a chaconne-like movement — and Baráti turned in a reading that was almost painful in its intensity of feeling. The work pushes the violin to the limits with a wildly inventive palette of sounds, and its often wrenching emotional landscape (it was written in 1944) makes it a work not for the faint of heart. But Baráti played it with such insight and understanding that the audience erupted in a sustained standing ovation at the end, bringing him back for an encore, Paganini’s Caprice No. 1.
Orchestras tend to be cautious things, obliged by economics to stick to well-trod musical paths. So it’s always interesting to hear members of the National Symphony Orchestra play chamber music, where they can be as adventurous as they like. That was the case at the Terrace Theater on Sunday afternoon, when the Kennedy Center Chamber Players presented such unusual, rarely heard music as the modernism of Bela Bartok to the lush romanticism of Anton Arensky.
Violinists Marissa Regni and Jane Stewart opened the program with a dozen brief duos by Bartok. Written in the early 1930s as technical studies for the violin, they were never intended for performance, but Bartok being Bartok, neither are they light throwaways. Biting, playful, introspective and steeped in Hungarian folk music, the duos were as challenging expressively as they were technically, and Regni and Stewart made them sing. Regni was then joined by NSO principal cellist David Hardy for Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. The afternoon’s most familiar work, it also was its deepest and most accomplished — a lean, taut work that Hardy and Regni treated with the cut-to-the-bone seriousness it deserves.
The viola is often overshadowed in chamber music by its siblings in the string family, so the unusual Fantasia for Four Violas, Op. 41, No. 1, by British composer York Bowen, was something of a revelation. A quartet of violas might sound like too much of a good thing, but this warm, elegiac work conjures a striking range of textures and effects and handles them masterfully. It’s heartfelt (in a restrained, English way, of course) and elegant, perhaps a bit stuffy to modern ears but well worth hearing nonetheless.
The music of Arensky — a Russian prodigy who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, drank himself to death at age 45 and, oddly, has a glacier in the Antarctic named after him — is not widely heard anymore, but his Quartet for Violin, Viola, and Two Cellos, Op. 35, from 1895, is a gem. The profound, introspective work written in memory of Tchaikovsky uses the two cellos to beautiful effect, adding depth and darkness without heaviness. The Kennedy Center players brought searing expressive purpose to the music, particularly in the massive second movement, with its elaborate variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky’s.