Isn’t it great when the stand-in steals the show? That’s what happened Friday night at the Library of Congress after featured singer Marianna Mihai-Zoeter came down with a cold and was replaced at the last minute by the lyric soprano Hyunah Yu. Despite only one rehearsal with the Antares Quartet, Yu turned in a reading of Franz Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (“The Shepherd on the Rock”) that was absolutely captivating.
That was no easy task: “Shepherd” is a longish, quasi-coherent lied that Schubert cobbled together as a showpiece for different dramatic styles, and it has all the emotional complexity of a Meissen figurine. But Yu (accompanied ably by Garrick Zoeter on clarinet and Eric Huebner on the piano) handled it with exceptional style and effortless lyrical grace. The audience, to judge by the general swooning, was helplessly in love by the end.
But the evening really belonged to Antares, an unusual ensemble of piano, clarinet, cello and violin that is making an impressive name for itself in contemporary music. Things got off to a roiling start with John Harbison’s 1988 “Fantasy Duo for Violin and Piano,” a work so scorchingly intense that it left burn marks on the ears. Don’t be misled by the “fantasy” title: This was a tightly argued work that built tentative gestures, brutal slashes of color, shimmering pastels and sweeping melodic lines into a heady, headlong rush of ideas. It was a dazzling piece, superbly played by violinist Jesse Mills.
Caroline Mallonee’s “Shadow Rings” might not have been the strongest work on the program, but it was arguably the most likable. There’s a refreshing, what-the-hell playfulness to Mallonee’s music, and “Shadow” was full of inventive ideas and sonic wonders; this is an imaginative young composer from whom we hope to hear more.
The evening closed with Olivier Messiaen’s iconic “Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps,” a work Antares has specialized in. The group’s reading was polished, meditative and almost serene — an interesting contrast to some of the more edgy and terrifying accounts heard here in recent years.