By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 19, 2007
The Post-Classical Ensemble may be the most thought-provoking music group in town. It's certainly one of the most innovative, using its concerts as laboratories for musical thought experiments. Often focusing on a single piece -- or even a single movement from a single piece -- the group probes the work's cultural "back story," pulling away layer after layer of context to expose its innermost core. Their performances can be demanding -- but they're invariably beautiful, and never dull.
Gustav MahlerThat was the case Friday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, when the ensemble focused on the "The Farewell" -- the final movement of Gustav Mahler's song-symphony "Song of the Earth." Based on translations of three 8th-century Chinese poems, the work is redolent of Eastern influences, and the evening opened by going directly to the roots: traditional Chinese music, followed by a reading (in Chinese) of the original poems that inspired the composer.
Zhou LongThose same poems were also the basis of the next work on the program, a new "Farewell" by Chinese-American composer Zhou Long. It was a masterly work -- atmospheric, finely wrought music that captured the delicate melancholy of the poems without ever descending into sentimentality. Long speaks a thoroughly modern language and has one of the most striking sonic imaginations of any composer around, but it was the sheer grace of this music that lingered in the ears.
Barely pausing for breath, conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez led the ensemble into the Mahler -- a chamber version for 13 instruments, reduced from the vast orchestral original. And it was a revelatory performance: Pared down to its essentials, "The Farewell" gained in clarity what it lost in mass, and mezzo Delores Ziegler was able to take an intimate approach that brought out all the elusive beauty of the Chinese poems.