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.
A neo-gamelan orchestra teamed up with an avant-garde string quartet, to play music of cosmic scope and ear-bending sonics? Not for every taste, maybe, but for adventurous music lovers, Thursday night’s concert at the Freer Gallery was an all-too-short wonder.
Spread across the stage was a collection of handmade metalaphones, gongs, marimbas and other gamelan-inspired instruments — all unique and tuned like no other instruments on earth — manned by the San Francisco-based composers collective Lightbulb. And at their heart sat the illustrious JACK Quartet, whose godlike stature in the contemporary music scene is beyond all serious dispute.
In other words, it was about as cutting edge as cutting edge gets. But when Lightbulb launched into the first work of the evening, “Mikrokosma,” by the group’s Brian Baumbusch and Wayne Vitale, it felt as if the Freer had suddenly dropped into some ancient world — absolutely strange and absolutely familiar. The work is rooted in Indonesian gamelan music and Hindu cosmology (it’s inspired, Baumbusch says, by “the turning of the universe”), and it came across as ritualistic and almost incantatory, a vast, shape-shifting universe of rhythmic patterns and pungent intonations.
Cosmic revolution also was the subject of John Cage’s “String Quartet in Four Parts” from 1950, whose movements correlate with the seasons. The word “enigmatic” barely begins to describe the work — quiet, spare, utterly tranquil and detached. There’s no fist-shaking or thundering, no grappling with the cruel Fates, no tragic despair or inspired soaring. Shorn of the usual emoting, the music takes on a sense of immense and transcendent grandeur. The JACK players turned in a superb performance of a piece that, so simple on the surface, seems to float over infinite depths.
If the Cage was simplicity distilled, the next work — Baumbusch’s “Hydrogen(2)Oxygen,” in its world premiere — was exuberantly complex. Bringing together Lightbulb and the JACK Quartet, the piece built from an ethereal opening into a raging torrent of asymmetrical rhythms, phase-shifting patterns and beautifully strange harmonies, all driven by “an aesthetic of molecular crystallizations,” as the composer puts it. And, in fact, it sounded elemental at every level, as if Baumbusch were trying to track the motion of each drop of water in a massive tsunami. Bewildering at first, even overpowering, it turned maddeningly beautiful and — to these ears, at least — magnificent, and as intoxicating as a drug.
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.