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.
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.