By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 26, 2015
Can contemporary music be … actual fun? That was the question on Sunday afternoon, when the Verge Ensemble put on a relaxed, just-hanging-out-playing-music concert at Westmoreland Congregational Church. And the answer, clearly, was an emphatic: Why not?
The Verge has been dishing out cutting-edge music to District audiences since 1973, and Sunday’s concert (held to celebrate the group’s appointment as New Music Ensemble-in-Residence at the Washington Conservatory of Music) focused on three living American composers, including the formidable (and at this point quasi-venerable) Steve Antosca, who launched the group all those eons ago.
Pianist Lura Johnson, cellist Tobias Werner and marimbist William Richards opened the afternoon with Marc Mellits’ “Tight Sweater,” a six-part suite in a minimalist style. Building short, repeated, pop-influenced patterns into a driving whole, it was perfectly pleasant if a little empty-headed; think “Steve Reich Lite,” and you get the idea. And depending on your philosophy, the movements’ Frank Zappa-ish titles (“Evil Yellow Penguin,” “Trans Fatty Acid’s Rein,” Pickle Trousers,” etc.) were either (a) cute, (b) cutesy, or (c) galloping into Cutesytown with a ribbon in their hair. But it was a good antidote to the self-seriousness of much new music, which was the point, so kudos for that.
Two movements from Antosca’s five-part “Elements for Cello and Electronics” followed, and proved to be far more substantial and strikingly less cute. The work explores a vast new range of extended techniques Antosca developed for the cello, but it’s not just a catalogue of unusual sounds; in Werner’s hands the work came off as an eloquent, engaging and very human soliloquy with a sense of quiet drama.
Violinist Lina Bahn took the stage with Werner and Johnson to close out the afternoon with Dan Visconti’s piano trio “Lonesome Roads.” The players could barely contain their affection for the work, a bluesy, freewheeling suite that evokes the spirit — and mimics the sounds — of a car trip across America. Propulsive, cinematic, charging into the horizon with the top down and the wind howling by, it’s a work so full of life that all you want to do is climb in for the ride.
Strange but true fact: some concert-goers just aren’t that crazy about string quartets. Yes, they do deserve our pity, and our help. But even for those benighted souls, Schubert’s single-movement Quartet in C minor, D. 703 — alias the “Quartettsatz“ — is hard to resist: lovely, lyrical and (best of all) over in a flash.
In other words, it’s not much more than a musical “appetizer,” as the Ariel Quartet’s Jan Gruning put it at the start of the group’s performance at the Kreeger Museum on Saturday night. And having dispatched the Schubert with offhand ease, this fine young ensemble quickly turned serious, taking on two of the most emotionally and spiritually probing works in the entire repertoire.
First up was Alban Berg’s “Lyric Suite,” from 1926. It’s a masteriece in every way, a work of such imagination and psychological power and raw aching beauty — despite being written in Schoenberg’s loved-by-almost-nobody twelve-tone system — that other chamber works from the period just scurry away in shame. The Ariel players turned in a gripping and often very subtle reading, setting ear-melting tenderness against seething passion with a deft and precise touch.
After an alarmingly long intermission — seriously, whole empires had time to rise and fall — the Ariel returned for Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. The program notes helpfully pointed out that Beethoven wrote the work while suffering from “bowel inflammation,” but that seems to not quite explain either the spiritual agonies or the transcendent glories of this spectacuar work. Like the Berg, it’s vast in scope and profound in human understanding, and despite a rather blah, nap-inducing start, the Ariel seemed to come alive in the hymn-like third movement, turning in a riveting and absolutely committed reading, led by violinist Alexandra Kazovsky.
The contemporary music scene in New York has been generating a nearly endless stream of high-powered, young ensembles over the past decade, and on Sunday night, one of the most imaginative of them — a musical collective known as the Knights — came to Dumbarton Oaks as part of the museum’s Friends of Music series.
Delving into the tumultuous years around World War I, the Knights explored the birth of the modern world, contrasting lush, emotional works rooted in the past (Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer” for cello and piano) against modern (and decidedly anti-lush) works from Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky.
The evening opened with a warm and surprisingly conventional work from Sergei Prokofiev. The “Overture on Hebrew Themes,” Op. 34, from 1919 is a languorous, soft-edged work, whose every note seems to glow with sensuality and even nostalgia. It’s a world away from the more biting, forward-looking music of Prokofiev’s later years, and the players underscored the point by leaping into modernism with Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor, from 1914. With Eric Jacobsen (one of the founders of the group) on cello, the deft Guillaume Pirard on violin and Steven Beck at the piano, the ensemble turned in a delicate, beautifully drawn account of the work, full of shifting light and elusive colors and with a sense of improvisatory freedom.
Anton Webern’s “Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano,” Op. 11, are so perfectly concise that they barely exist. But these quick-witted miniatures punch far above their weight, and when they appeared in 1914 — foreshadowing the emergence of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system — they marked a strikingly original step forward. Jacobsen and Beck played through all of the works twice (in only five minutes) in a fine and thoroughly convincing reading.
Caroline Shaw’s arrangement of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis: Leo” from 1974-1975 followed. Chronologically, it was a bit of an anomaly, but a welcome one — and much more tuneful and charming than you might expect from the difficult-on-many-levels Stockhausen. But it was Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 from “The Soldier’s Tale” that really made the evening. Built around a folk tale, it’s a colorful, earthy work full of wild sonorities and hard-charging dances — a sort of Chagall painting come to life. The musicians, led by the fine violinist Ariana Kim, gave it a spirited, wonderfully playful reading.
Recitals by the pianist Sara Daneshpour have become a highlight of the American Art Museum’s annual Steinway Series, and her probing and often fiery performance Sunday afternoon showed why. Daneshpour’s near-impeccable technique is impressive enough, but in a program that ranged from the musings of Robert Schumann to the eruptive violence of Sergei Prokofiev, Daneshpour also brought an intensity and seriousness of purpose that had you at the edge of your seat.
The afternoon opened quietly, with two one-movement sonatas by the baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti. Scarlatti cranked out over 500 of these, most as quirky as they are brief, but Daneshpour turned in poised and thoughtful readings that played down their more mercurial qualities. They were followed by Schumann’s “Variations on the Name Abegg,” Op. 1. Written when the composer was just 20, not yet crazy, and apparently stricken with love, it is a charming and eager-to-please work with few depths to plumb. Daneshpour played it with affection, which is maybe all you can ask.
But Daneshpour quickly shifted into deeper, darker waters with Frédéric Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35. Famous for its instantly recognizable funeral march, it is a work of heart-wrenching beauty, tenderness and despair. Bent almost motionless over the keyboard, Daneshpour turned in a performance as molten as lava, letting the tension brood and build, until the volcanic release of the final movement.
Four of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s graceful, painterly “Etudes-Tableaux” followed, but it was Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat , Op. 83 that stole the show. Written in 1942, it is a biting and often brutal work that seems to treat the piano like a piece of large artillery, savage in its power and teetering — like the war that inspired it — on the edge of insanity. Daneshpour gave it a furious, all-claws-bared performance, as sharp and dangerous as Prokofiev could have wished.
Daneshpour ended the afternoon with a perfectly chosen encore, the spare, brief “Für Alina” by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, which seemed to add a grace note of hope to Prokofiev’s anguish.
The play of light — that weightless, ephemeral stuff, so much like sound itself — has long fascinated composers, particularly the musical impressionists of early 20th century France and the “spectralist” composers of the past few decades. So it was a particularly luminous evening at the Library of Congress on Friday, when violinist Jennifer Koh, cellist Anssi Karttunen and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute paired the music of Ravel and Debussy with two new works by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho — music inspired, as the composer put it, by “the continuous transformation of light.”
Lyrical, mischievous, shifting from snarling to ebullient, Debussy’s 1915 “Sonata for Cello and Piano” is a small-scale tour de force, and Karttunen and Jokubaviciute opened the program with a wonderfully extroverted reading, seething with color and life. It was followed by Saariaho’s “Aure” for violin and cello, a quieter but no less beautiful work whose title refers to “a kind of delicate morning breeze.” Like much of Saariaho’s music, it was intricately etched, drawn more from nature than from human passion, and it seemed to glow with a distant light, as if from the edge of the turning world.
As a cellist, Karttunen has worked with Saariaho for decades, but it was the electrifying young violinist Koh whom the packed house had really come to hear. Conviction, ferocity, an irresistible sense of play — Koh has it all, and she turned in a no-holds-barred performance of Ravel’s “Sonata for Violin and Violoncello” that won her the first of several standing ovations. Debussy’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano,” which followed, may even have been more spectacular: a reading (with the superb Jokubaviciute accompanying) that imbued Debussy’s rapturous sensuality with Koh’s own razor-sharp intelligence and wit.
The evening closed with the Washington premiere of Saariaho’s 2014 trio, “Light and Matter,” inspired by sunlight on trees outside the composer’s window. Like the earlier “Aure,” it’s a naturalistic work that unfolds with a kind of austere purity, building delicate details into a work of huge, elemental power. Even at this small scale, Saariaho’s music inspires a kind of awe — it can be like staring into a vast landscape — and that sense of immensity ran through the entire work: a universe, revealed in a moment of dappled light.
From its title, you might think “Two Thousand Flutes” would be among the more massive — and slightly alarming — events in the history of music. But the demonstration and concert at the Library of Congress on Saturday afternoon by flutist Lorna McGhee was largely a solo affair and an overview of the instrument that showcased more than a dozen of the thousands of rare flutes in the Library’s Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection.
In fact, the flutes themselves were a good part of the draw. McGhee, the principal flutist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, shared the stage with Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, the curator of the collection, for an engaging discussion that featured a 16th-century end-blown flute, a yard-long walking-stick flute, an odd but surprisingly sonorous plexiglass flute and many others — including historic instruments made by Theobald Boehm, Johann Joachim Quantz and Louis Lot that transformed the flute from a breathy wooden tube to the precise, high-powered instrument it is today.
McGhee, playing her own silver Altus flute, opened the afternoon with Francis Poulenc’s 1957 “Sonata for Flute and Piano.” Urbane, elegant and Parisian to its bones, it’s one of the great charmers of the repertoire, and McGhee (with Ryo Yanagitani at the piano) turned in a nimble, light-filled reading, sustained on her exceptionally rich and vibrant tone.
She switched to a copy of an 18th-century wooden Quantz flute for Francois Couperin’s gently beguiling “Le Rossignol en Amour,” then back to the modern flute for the Corrente movement from Bach’s Partita in A Minor for solo flute, BWV 1013, and an excerpt from Marin Marais’s wonderfully expressive “Les Folies d’Espagne.”
Those solo works allowed McGhee to underscore different aspects of the flute sound, all of which seemed to come together in an evocative and richly nuanced performance of Debussy’s iconic “Syrinx,” L. 129, which she played on a 19th-century Lot silver flute (much as Louis Fleury may have done for the 1913 premiere). A display of Native American flutes led to “Winter Spirits,” an incantatory solo work by flutist and composer Katherine Hoover that seemed to soar with colorful, highly idiomatic writing for the flute.
But the high point of the concert (which also had been presented at the Evermay estate in Georgetown the night before, in conjunction with the S&R Foundation) may have been the “Fantaisie Brillante on Themes from Bizet’s ‘Carmen,’ ” arranged in 1900 by the French flutist Francois Borne. Joined again by Yanagitani, McGhee turned in a virtually flawless rendition of this virtuosic and wildly exuberant showpiece, a tsunami of coloratura writing that brought the audience to its feet — and then to the stage for a post-concert look at the display of flutes, which attracted as much admiring attention as the performers themselves.
If there’s a documentary film crew following your every move, you’re probably doing something interesting. That’s certainly the case for the Shanghai Quartet, which — with cameras rolling — took the stage at the Freer Gallery of Art in the District on Thursday for a high-powered evening of Ravel, Beethoven and rising composer Lei Liang, whose beguiling works have become a centerpiece of the group’s concerts.
Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F is an icon of musical impressionism if there ever was one — full of glowing, light-as-air effects and nonstop elegance — and it’s usually played that way. But the Shanghai players kept all eight feet firmly on the ground throughout the work, probing beneath the shimmer for a complex, nuanced but, at times, rather cool reading. This ensemble exudes such seriousness of purpose that you tend to sit up a bit straighter in your chair when they play, and there’s rarely a feeling of heady, rapturous abandon. But precision and clear-eyed intelligence (and maybe a little astringency as well) can bring out the best in Ravel, and it was a superb reading.
Liang, a Chinese American composer in his early 40s, was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize this year, and it’s easy to see why. Fresh, imaginative, steeped in tradition but thoroughly contemporary, his music has an immediate, nearly irresistible appeal. His “Verge Quartet” (written for the Shanghai Quartet) received its world premiere Thursday and, though only about 11 minutes long, had an almost epic feel. Steeped in traditional Mongolian music, and tied to the birth of the composer’s son, “Verge” seemed to shift effortlessly among musical worlds, its feathery atmospherics, percussive slaps, sliding glissandos and driving rhythms all integrated into a work of convincing unity and purpose.
The evening closed with Beethoven’s Quartet No. 2, Op. 59, one of the ravishing “Razumovsky” quartets. It was here that the Shanghai players seemed most in their element. Beethoven’s uncompromising seriousness of purpose echoed their own, and the heaven-storming drama, elegant refinement, controlled fury and profound serenity throughout the work all came to life in the group’s powerful performance.