21st Century Consort at the Smithsonian
Sunday, December 21, 2008 at 04:42PM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 7, 2008

Those of us who love contemporary music -- that ear-bending stuff sandwiched on the program between the Haydn and Schubert, when listeners are pinned helplessly in their seats -- often urge nonbelievers to listen as if looking at modern art. Think of music as a canvas, we say; imagine the abstract shapes as a Frankenthaler, the explosive power as a Kline, the novel mix of ideas as a Rauschenberg.

Kaija SaariahoSometimes, believe it or not, that actually works. And it's fascinating to hear a concert designed around specific artists, as the 21st Century Consort did Saturday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, focusing on the museum's current exhibition of paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and photographs by Ansel Adams.

 The program opened with Aaron Copland's Piano Fantasy, and seemed to be a direct nod to Adams. Drawn largely in bold strokes with spare, often terse gestures (much like Adams's photographs), the work was given a robust performance by Lisa Emenheiser.

The rest of the concert focused on three of the more interesting non-dead-white-male composers around: the gifted Augusta Read Thomas, known for her kinetic, dancelike works; an adventurous Finn named Kaija Sarriaho; and the grande dame of American music, Joan Tower.

Thomas's music inspires love bordering on madness in some of us, but her ". . . a circle around the sun . . ."/"Moon Jig" pairing got a rather tentative performance -- or perhaps it was just outshone by a completely stunning work called "Petals" for amplified cello and electronics by Sarriaho. Played superbly by Rachel Young at the far reaches of her instrument, it was as coloristic and involving as -- why not? -- an O'Keeffe painting. Emenheiser and violinist Elisabeth Adkins joined Young to close the program in style with three engaging works by Tower, including the smile-inducing "And . . . They're Off."

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