By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 1, 2016
Few — if any — string quartets have had as much impact on contemporary music as the Arditti Quartet. Through virtuosic performances of works that leave other ensembles scratching their heads, the Arditti has introduced — maybe “revealed” is a better word — some of the most important new music of the past four decades. So it was a particular treat to hear the Arditti at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, where the group explored the subtle connections between three modern French masterpieces, and suggested that “impressionism” in music may still be very much alive.
The afternoon opened with one of the most striking quartets of 20th-century modernism, Henri Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit,” from 1976. Rigorously structured, integrated down to its molecules, the work unfolded with such naturalness and weightless imagination that it felt almost improvised. That, no doubt, was largely because of the Arditti players themselves, who brought not only clarity and near-infinite detail to the work (which often has the impressionistic, wildly colored feeling of a dream), but also a heady sense of spontaneity.
The Arditti has long been championing the music of Pascal Dusapin, a formidable French composer whose music is not known here nearly as well as it should be. His “Quartet V” from 2005 proved to be an instantly captivating work, opening with lurching, plucked rhythms from the cello and viola under an ethereal line from the violin, which all gathered in density before building to a furious climax. But the most astonishing part of the work was the long, ultra-quiet passage that closed it, growing ever more gripping as it slowly descended, whispering and beckoning, into an unfathomable silence.
There are few works more lush and light-filled than Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F, a work of pure magic from 1903. It made a fine close to the afternoon, although Arditti, to these ears, never seemed entirely at home in its ultra-polished elegance, sounding a bit unsure and even rough around the edges at times. But whatever the performance lacked in fine detail and effortless grace, it more than made up for in characterful expression, and the final “Vif et agité” movement was so full of life that it won the group an extended standing ovation.
The gifted young violinist Chad Hoopes has been rising — or maybe hurtling — toward international stardom since taking first prize in the junior division of the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition in 2008. Now 21, with a string of recording and concert successes behind him, Hoopes made his Kennedy Center debut at the Terrace Theater on Thursday evening and displayed not only the jaw-dropping virtuosity that’s become almost the norm in young professionals, but also a gift for dramatic pacing and a distinctive, convincing sense of poetry.
Accompanied by the Australian pianist David Fung, Hoopes opened with Antonín Dvorák’s pleasant little Sonatina in G for Violin and Piano, Op. 100. Written in 1893 as a piece for his children and flavored with American folk melodies, the piece isn’t too technically demanding, and you won’t work up much of a sweat plumbing its emotional depths either.
But the infinitely more compelling “Five Melodies, Op. 35” by Sergei Prokofiev more than made up for it. This remarkable set of miniatures was originally written as a “song without words” for soprano, but the version for violin allows for a much richer sonic texture and complexity, without sacrificing any of the intense lyricism. Hoopes and Fung turned in a glowing — even, to these ears, a little intoxicating — reading that shimmered with exotic colors, heightened by elegant little jabs of Prokofievan violence.
Hoopes’s assured and vivid playing was deftly supported by Fung, who seemed to dance with the keyboard all evening (and whose life-of-its-own “fauxhawk” threatened at times to steal the show). That interplay continued through a smiling-slash-snarling reading of Maurice Ravel’s feral, gypsy-flavored “Tzigane” and into Cesar Franck’s much-loved Sonata in A for Violin and Piano. It was here that Hoopes’s sense of lyricism, gripping dramatic flow and intellectual depth all came together in a bravura performance that won the duo a standing ovation. The evening ended with two encores, Fritz Kreisler’s charming “Syncopation” from 1925 and Mozart’s Adagio in E, for a quiet end to an impressive Kennedy Center debut.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • January 18, 2016
Contemporary composers don’t have an easy time of it. If their music is performed at all, it’s usually shoe-horned in between Haydn and Dvorak, often to the alarm of all parties concerned. But the Phillips Collection has turned that clumsy model on its head by inviting a young composer — the gifted Nico Muhly — to design his own concert series, with free rein to choose everything from performers to programs. And if Sunday’s opening concert — which tied Muhly’s own music to that of Igor Stravinsky and Timo Andres — is any indication, the series will be a highlight of the Phillips’s winter season.
The concert showcased Andres himself at the piano, with the Russian American Yevgeny Kutik on violin. Opening with Muhly’s “Compare Notes,” a work premiered a few years ago at the Library of Congress by violinist Daniel Hope, Kutik immediately put his own distinctive stamp on the music. “Compare Notes” rings with a kind of direct, almost urgent authenticity. That seemed to suit Kutik perfectly; he turned in a vivid and captivating performance, and if his reading was perhaps less glowing than Hope’s, it was no less convincing — and maybe even more so.
That sense of directness and vitality set the tone for the entire concert, which may explain the program’s striking sense of cohesion. Or perhaps it was Kutik’s assured and full-bodied playing, which (supported impeccably by Andres) brought a kind of rough-and-tumble lyricism to two neo-classical works by Stravinsky, the 1932 “Duo Concertante” and the 1933 “Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano” (based on the Pulcinella ballet). Kutik, who was born in Minsk, has a clear affinity for Stravinsky’s earthy, rich chamber music, and his reading of the “Duo Concertante” was the most characterful — and maybe most satisfying — you’re ever likely to hear.
But the violinist may have reserved his most insightful playing for the premiere of “Words Fail,” a one-movement “song without words” he commissioned from Andres last year. The work, Andres explained, was an attempt to grapple with his own aversion to vocal music (words are “one thing too many” in music, he said) by exploring the voice-like qualities of the violin. From a descending lament, the work slowly gathers power through overlapping variations, becoming darker, more ambiguous and more complex before building to a soaring climax. Kutik and Andres gave a persuasive, deeply thoughtful reading to this involving new work.
It’s not often that you hear a French horn recital dedicated to one of the Roman gods. But the two-faced Janus (who looks to both the future and the past) turned out to be an apt inspiration for hornist Eric Ruske, whose recital at the Library of Congress on Friday explored the ancient and almost primal sound of the instrument — by focusing on works from the 20th century.
Accompanied by pianist Gloria Chien, Ruske opened with Paul Hindemith’s “Sonata for Alto Horn and Piano.” There’s a brooding, nostalgic beauty running through this 1943 work, and Ruske and Chien played it with great sensitivity. But its most unusual feature — a spoken dialogue between the performers, spelling out the “yearning, melancholy longing” that the horn evokes — seemed a bit ham-handed, spoiling the very effect it was intended to enhance.
Just as nostalgic but infinitely more subtle was Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Trio,” from 1982. Ligeti called the piece a homage to Brahms, and it’s often paired (as it was at this recital) with Brahms’s seminal “Trio in E-flat major” from 1865. But it’s no mere exercise in neo-Romanticism. Written in a distinctive musical language Ligeti could only call “non-atonal,” the trio is an affecting and strikingly evocative work, weaving the tenderness of the opening Andante movement with the lurching brutality of the “Alla Marcia” and the tragic eloquence of the closing “Lamento.” Ruske, with Chien and violinist Jennifer Frautschi, turned in a memorable performance.
Vincent Persichetti’s 1972 “Parable VIII for solo horn, op. 120” is not only an engaging soliloquy, but it’s also a fine display piece for the palette of effects the horn is capable of, and Ruske turned in a virtuosic performance. But the real high point of the evening came in the closing work, the Brahms Trio, Op. 40. The sense of wistful nostalgia — tangible throughout the evening — was almost overpowering, especially in the sweeping Adagio, and Ruske turned in a glowing account. But it was violinist Frautschi (who is married to Ruske) who led the work — and maybe even stole the show with a commanding, incisive and absolutely riveting performance.
Charles Ives — that brilliant, visionary, utterly original and perfectly down-to-earth composer — may have written some of the most astonishing American music of the 20th century, but with a reputation for being “difficult,” he still shows up far too rarely on concert programs.
Fortunately, Ives has the formidable Angel Gil-Ordóñez and Joseph Horowitz of the PostClassical Ensemble as his champions, and on Sunday evening, they teamed up with the Georgetown University Orchestra to present two of the composer’s most iconic works: the Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Massachusetts 1840-1860” and the Symphony No. 2.
The PostClassical Ensemble is known for its contextual performances — enhancing music with contemporary writings and art — and for Sunday’s concert, baritone William Sharp joined pianist Steven Mayer for a performance of the “Concord” sonata that alternated writings from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Ives himself with the four movements of the work.
It is an interesting approach, but Mayer’s playing was so riveting that you found yourself wishing that Sharp would maybe just stay quiet for a bit and let the music speak for itself. Steeped in the transcendental philosophy of 19th-century Concord, it is a work of immense scale and a kind of roaring, ecstatic spirituality — qualities Mayer brought out in a searching and extraordinarily powerful performance.
You have to hand it to Georgetown University; despite a minuscule music department, the school can field a presentable orchestra (made up entirely of students who are not music majors) and bring off works as ambitious as Ives’s Symphony No. 2 from 1909.
Under Gil-Ordóñez’s baton, the orchestra turned in a colorful and often spirited performance, with a luminous “Adagio cantabile” movement and an explosive close — a performance that, in its direct and unvarnished sincerity, Ives would surely have enjoyed.
It was a visibly shaken Matthias Pintscher who took the stage at the Library of Congress on Friday evening, only hours after a series of savage terrorist attacks had swept across Paris. Asking for a minute of silence, Pintscher and his Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain bowed their heads, then launched into a program of music that, in its dazzling expressiveness and intensity of feeling, felt like a tribute to the victims — and a profound, unbending affirmation of life.
A work of almost prayer-like gentleness opened the program. Hannah Lash’s lovely, understated “Two Movements for Violin and Piano” (a commission by the Library’s McKim Fund, in its premiere) used the simplest of means — a cantabile violin line over a spare and open piano accompaniment — to create a sense of wistful reflection, then hesitation, before finding release in the soaring second movement.
The contrast with Edgard Varese’s “Octandre” could not have been greater. There’s a gleefully explosive quality to this 1927 work, which roars and screeches and erupts at every turn with Machine Age mania, and under Pintscher’s baton the ensemble — arguably the finest contemporary music group on the planet — turned in an almost disconcertingly vivid performance.
Pintscher is as known for his composing as for his conducting, and his three-part “Profiles of Light” (in its U.S. premiere) proved to be a work of rigorous, uncompromising modernism. Pianists Hidéki Nagano and Dimitri Vassilakis and cellist Éric-Maria Couturier turned in an impassioned reading, but the music was easier to admire than to really fall for — the kind of Serious European Composing that sounds increasingly hidebound in the face of the adventurous, unbuttoned and voraciously free-ranging music coming out of the American new-music scene.
Georgy Ligeti’s “Chamber Concerto” for 13 instrumentalists, on the other hand, remains as flat-out gorgeous today as it did in 1970. Pintscher gave it a luminous and superbly detailed reading, richly complex but instantly and irresistibly engaging. And the 1925 “Chamber Concerto” for piano, violin and 13 winds by Alban Berg proved an even greater showcase for the ensemble’s virtuosity, driven by psychologically astute performances from violinist Diégo Tosi and pianist Nagano. The packed house responded with an extended standing ovation — as much, perhaps, for the ensemble’s fortitude in adversity, as for its stunning musicianship.
In the pantheon of cello gods, a place is surely reserved for the late, great Pablo Casals — not least for rescuing from obscurity the six magnificent suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. So it was fascinating to hear an unusual tribute to Casals at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Sunday, when — courtesy of Washington Performing Arts — the Israeli-born cellist Amit Peled re-created a concert Casals gave at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1915 — and performed it on Casals’s own cello.
Casals was nothing if not expressive — perhaps even to a fault. Some of his recordings can sound like a hot mess to modern ears, with their luxurious rubatos and approximate intonations and not-exactly-subtle phrasing. But Peled (with Noreen Polera at the piano) blended Casals-like passion with rigorous discipline, turning in a detailed, intensely focused program that featured lighter works — Beethoven’s variations on a theme from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” three lyrical pieces by Gabriel Fauré and an early Handel sonata — and the centerpiece of the afternoon, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C, BWV 1009.
The Bach was, in a word, stunning. Casals’s cello — made by Matteo Goffriller in 1733 — seemed almost toylike against Peled’s lanky 6-foot-5 frame (Casals clocked in at a modest 5-foot-4), but it has a rather spare and voicelike tone that lent itself well to Peled’s natural, human approach. The work came alive with a sense of deeply felt improvisation, almost of storytelling, yet he always maintained the radiant grandeur that lies at the heart of this music.
The afternoon ended with the only piece not on Casals’s original program — the world premiere of “La Suite dels Ocells,” by Lera Auerbach. Commissioned by Washington Performing Arts, the work is a sort of postmodern homage to Casals, drawing on the Bach suites and a song from the cellist’s native Catalonia and rethinking them in a contemporary musical language. Auerbach is a skillful composer, and there was much to admire in this bold, imaginative piece. But riffing on music that is as direct, timeless and self-contained as Bach’s (not to mention Catalan lullabies) is risky, and Auerbach’s 20-minute suite often skirted perilously close to sophisticated pastiche.