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.
Is there a better antidote to the chill of this endless winter than the hot-blooded music of Spain? Well, okay — maybe tickets to the Caribbean. But a close second was Tuesday night’s impassioned performance by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and guitar legend Sharon Isbin, who brought two hours of fiery, flamenco-steeped music to the Terrace Theater as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Iberian Suite: Global Arts Remix” festival.
A subtle if slightly austere guitarist, Isbin displayed her superb technique and suggestive sense of poetry throughout the evening, particularly in familiar short works for solo guitar that included the glowing “Asturias” by Isaac Albéniz, Francisco Tárrega’s heartbreaking “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” and others by Enrique Granados and Joaquin Rodrigo.
But the real star of the evening turned out to be the less-familiar Leonard, a rising young mezzo with a radiant, bell-like voice and a captivating sense of drama. The duo opened with four folk-based songs from the “Canciones Españolas Antiguas” by Federico Garcia Lorca (in arrangements by Isbin), and Leonard immediately seemed in her element, probing the dark, unsettling veins of tragedy and pathos — from blood feuds to early deaths — that run through every note. This is music that, as Lorca said, asks “a terrible question that has no answer,” and Leonard dug deeply into their mysteries, proving herself more than just a pretty voice.
That said, what a voice it is — supple, perfectly controlled, capable of great power, but with a lilt, purity and expressive warmth. Then there’s her engaging charm: After singing a lullaby from Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Cinco canciónes negras,” Leonard coaxed a young girl from the audience to join her onstage for an impromptu dance to “Canto negro.”
The duo, who played with a deep sense of connection and conviction all evening, closed with a richly colored reading of the “Siete canciones populares Españolas” by Manuel de Falla, and a standing ovation brought them back for a final (and spectacular) encore, Agustín Lara’s “Granada.”
The National Gallery of Art’s two-week American Music Festival — one of the most adventurous and exciting celebrations of contemporary music here in years — closed Sunday with a performance by the Third Coast Percussion ensemble that proved just how vital and fertile new American music really is. Playing on instruments as varied as Tibetan singing bowls and amplified Magic Markers, the ensemble transformed the museum’s West Garden Court into a vast, resonating sonic playground, presenting four recent works that ran from mischievous humor to bluesy sensuality — delivered with virtuosity and deft, precisely timed wit.
The evening opened with “Resounding Earth,” an ambitious new work by Augusta Read Thomas. Played on an array of 300 bells, gongs and other instruments, it’s an overtly spiritual work whose movements are titled “Invocation,” “Mantra” and the like. But there’s nothing New Agey about this music, no numbing yoga-music serenity. “Earth” burst irrepressibly, even joyously, with life, dancing from the shimmering of Burmese temple gongs to brutal, almost shrapnel-like explosions of sound, in a sort of elemental and rapturous song of the Earth.
Mark Applebaum’s playful “Straitjacket” opened the second half of the program. Applebaum is a gleefully uninhibited composer, and “Straitjacket” has little use for the conventional lines dividing music, theater and art. Accompanied by the ensemble, guest percussionist Ross Karre acted out sounds with his hands, played on a drum kit that included a hard hat and plastic bucket, and drew on a giant sketch pad with a squeaking, amplified pen. Mere antics? Maybe. But Applebaum has a superb ear and an equally well-tuned mind, and you’d have to be awfully sour not to think the work was a delight.
Tyshawn Sorey brought a sensuous turn to the evening with his “Trio for Harold Budd.” A bluesy work for piano, percussion and alto flute (played with soulful elegance by Rachel Beetz), it had a rich North African flavor, dark and exotic and altogether captivating. But it was the world premiere of Thomas DeLio’s “sound/shivering/silence II” that provided some of the most sublime music of the evening. Moving through the audience, the Third Coast players wove two brief poems by the American poet Cid Corman into DeLio’s spare, quietly eloquent music, which seemed to rise into the vaulted space and hang there, weightless and not quite of this Earth, with the distant intangible beauty of starlight.
Is there any string quartet today as flat-out brilliant as the JACK Quartet? This virtuosic young ensemble has emerged over the past decade as the go-to quartet for contemporary music, tying impeccable musicianship to intellectual ferocity and a take-no-prisoners sense of commitment — as its players (with guest pianist Eric Huebner) proved in an afternoon of new American music at the National Gallery of Art on Wednesday.
Part of the museum’s ongoing American Music Festival (which runs through March 22), the concert traced an arc from Morton Feldman’s 1950 spare, achingly delicate “Intermission 1” for solo piano to “The Dead Man,” an often brutal piece by the reigning genius of the New York avant-garde, John Zorn.
The central works on the program, though, may have been the most compelling. The program notes for “Le Journal du Corps,” a 2010 quartet by Lewis Nielson, were a little alarming — references to Frantz Fanon, “colonial imposition” and “corporate purchasing power” threatened a tedious screed. But the music itself seemed almost whispered, drawn in quiet gestures that echoed the human agonies it explored and coalesced finally into an exalting movement that had the grace of a communal prayer. In short, a work of serene dignity and subtle emotional power, as spiritual as it was political.
Eric Huebner returned for Roger Reynolds’s “imagE/piano” from 2007 — a brief piece that blends intricate construction, probing intellectual depth and sheer exuberance into a sweeping whole — and gave a perfectly calibrated reading of Stefan Wolpe’s “Form for Piano” (1959).
Some of the most high-octane music of the afternoon, though, came in David Felder’s “Stuck-stücke for String Quartet.” Exploding out of the gate, it rarely pulled back from edge-of-the-seat intensity throughout its 13 short movements, with violinist Ari Streisfeld leading a performance that left scorch marks on the ears.
The afternoon closed with a quartet from Zorn, a composer so volcanic it’s a wonder he doesn’t just burst into flame. “The Dead Man” from 1990 is not exactly a walk in the park with puppies — Zorn himself describes it as “sadomasochistic” — but like all his music, it’s beautifully made, full of strange and unsettling turns, and fascinating to its bones. The JACK players turned in a richly colored and theatrical performance — at one point slashing their bows through the air like whips — that brought out the astounding range of Zorn’s remarkable imagination.
The lines between musical genres have become so thoroughly blurred in the postmodern world (viz. the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s “Blues Symphony” a few weeks ago at Strathmore) that they barely exist anymore. And that’s a good thing, particularly for imaginative young composers such as Douglas Detrick, who brought his AnyWhen Ensemble to the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon for “The Bright and Rushing World” — an extended, 10-movement suite that draws naturally from the jazz and classical worlds.
Detrick describes the work as a journey — a young man heading out into the world for the first time — and it opened with the composer on trumpet laying out the theme that runs through the work. The other members of the quintet (saxophones, cello, bassoon and drum set) soon joined in, and over the next hour, engaged in a sort of picaresque roam through Detrick’s sound-world, forming and reforming into different combinations, shifting from one colorful, and often engaging, episode to the next.
Despite some fine playing by all the instrumentalists, it was a rather mild journey, and the work never seemed to gain much traction. Less “bright and rushing” than subdued and meandering, it came across as a succession of meditative sketches, with ideas suggested, gently passed around and then set aside, without developing a strong narrative or building into a powerful whole. And whenever the music started to come alive — as it did several times with a sense of urgency and purpose and direction, it would suddenly shy away and retreat to musical navel-gazing. Pleasant enough, but without much sense of risk or passion or of anything really at stake. By the end, you felt like you’d been on a stroll around the block rather than a journey into the burning heart of life.
That said, Detrick has a fine ear for timbre and texture, a mastery of classical and jazz styles, and an engaging technique on the trumpet. The AnyWhen players — Hashem Assadullahi on saxophones, Shirley Hunt on cello, Steve Vacchi on bassoon and Ryan Biesack at the drum set — played beautifully together, with obvious rapport and a fine sense of balance.