By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 9, 2007
Saul Steinberg may be one of the wittiest artists of the 20th Century. His illustrations and collages – currently in a don’t-miss show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum -- are full of sly, satirical humor, sketched out with a few pen strokes and quick dabs of watercolor. There’s nothing epic about them; their power comes from their deft and tender probing of our human foibles. Transformed to music, they wouldn’t be symphonies – they’d be chamber music.
Saul Steinberg / The New YorkerSo it was an inspired move by Christopher Kendall, the director of the 21st Century Consort, to put together a Steinberg-oriented concert at the Museum on Saturday, premiering several works written for the occasion. Virtually all of it was as engaging and inventive as the art itself: David Horne’s sextet “Spike” was a clever, constantly shifting landscape of the imagination, while James Fry’s duo for piano and bass clarinet, “A Little Cartoon Music”, overflowed with Steinbergian puns and playful allusions. “Him and Her” by Washington composer Jessica Krash took two of the artist’s cartoon figures – a forlorn woman in the snow, and a man drawing himself in a single florid swoop of the pen – and joined them together in a mingling of musical souls.
The only out-of-place piece was Claude Bolling’s “Suite for flute and jazz piano trio”, whose pretty banalities, one suspects, would have bored Steinberg senseless. But William Bolcom’s “Second Sonata for violin and piano” got a finely shaded reading from Elisabeth Adkins (with Edward Newman at the piano), and Thomas Albert’s “Illuminations”, for sextet with tap dancer, was absolutely stunning. Though sometimes out of balance -- David Covington’s dancing tended to overpower the music’s delicate textures -- Albert’s music shone with imagination and pure, shimmering beauty; illuminating in every sense of the word.