The 21st Century Consort has a symbiotic relationship with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, presenting concerts of new music there that tie in with the museum’s exhibits. The approach sometimes works better in theory than practice, and the professed links between Saturday’s program and the artist Robert Rauschenberg were, shall we say, a little diaphanous. But never mind – Consort director Christopher Kendall always manages to assemble thought-provoking programs that stand up perfectly well on their own two musical feet.
Rauschenberg was great pals with the composer John Cage, so it made sense that Cage’s ballet “The Seasons” took center stage in the program. Though it is usually heard in its orchestral version, pianist Lisa Emenheiser here presented the original 1947 score for piano, and played it with absolute clarity, lack of affect and a sense of playful, cosmic detachment – a perfectly Cage-ian approach in every way. The piece came as a distinct contrast to Joan Panetti’s “The Instant Gathers,” a passionate and intensely personal piano trio that opened the concert. Deeply involved playing from Emenheiser, cellist Rachel Young, and Joel Fuller on violin made Panetti’s emotional narrative exceptionally powerful.
Jordan Kuspa is a promising young composer now studying at Yale; his “Time Crunch” is a short but entertaining work that starts with broad expansive gestures gradually picking up speed and momentum, like a boulder rolling down a hill. The piece was accompanied by a video by Paul Moon; great minds may contend whether this was a plus or a minus, but to these ears the video seemed more pasted on than integrally linked, a distraction from the music that was difficult to ignore.
The program closed with Olivier Messiaen’s iconic “Quartet for the End of Time,” a piece that eats lesser ensembles for lunch. Suffice it to say that this was one of the most gripping, radiant performances heard here in recent years, thanks in particular to playing from Young and Fuller that was never less than profound.