It’s not hard to design a crowd-pleasing string quartet recital. You open with Haydn, toss in a little Mendelssohn or Brahms (maybe Debussy, if you’re daring), build up to one of the heftier Beethoven quartets and call it a day. It’s far more difficult to find fresh, pathbreaking new works that show how vibrant the quartet form still is — and that leave audiences on their feet and shouting for more.
But that’s exactly what the aptly named Carpe Diem String Quartet did on Sunday night, in an adventurous and often breathtaking recital of modern music at the National Gallery of Art’s West Garden Court. Eclectic almost to a fault, the group ranged from jazz to Turkish dances to some of the hardest-hitting music of the 20th century, and built to a spectacular climax with the premiere of a quartet by composer Jonathan Leshnoff that was nothing less than exalting — a major addition to the string quartet repertoire.
The program opened and closed with some likable arrangements of the jazz standards “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” but far more exciting was a suite of five new dances by Erberk Eryilmaz. “Miniatures Set No. 4” is a swirling, dervish-like explosion of a work, full of Turkish folk rhythms and bluesy bent notes and sudden yelps and shouts from the players. The excitement continued with Bela Bartok’s equally volatile Fifth String Quartet from 1934, whose landscapes of slashing chords and windswept wildness were brought off with white-hot intensity.
The quartet’s violist, Korine Fujiwara, is a composer as well, and her 2010 work “Hands” proved an enjoyable and smile-filled work, awash in soaring melodies, snapping fingers and inventive ideas. But it was Leshnoff’s String Quartet No. 4 that was the real event of the evening. From a base of modest musical motives (inspired, in part, by a recorder recital at his daughter’s school), the quartet built with seamless logic into a vast, thoroughly beautiful and extraordinarily moving work, its juggernaut-like power balanced with a luminous, almost hymn-like sense of spirituality and grace. It is a masterpiece any way you look at it, and the Carpe Diem players — for whom the work was written — played it with the absolute commitment it deserved.
In the tiny but essential niche of punk-classical music, Newspeak pretty much rules. Driving rhythms, sophisticated compositions by cutting-edge composers, virtuosic playing on electrified instruments — there’s little not to like about the New York-based ensemble, and after canceling a show here last fall because of Hurricane Sandy, Newspeak arrived at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Friday night for a set steeped in rock, politics and a kind of nostalgia for the revolutionary violence of the 1960s.
The evening, billed as an exploration of “imprisonment and release,” made for an often hard-punching close to the Atlas’s New Music series. Things lurched into gear as the ensemble tackled composer Corey Dargel’s “Last Words From Texas,” a song cycle built on the final statements of eight criminals as they were led to their executions. That’s a compelling idea — what goes through the human mind in those intense, final moments? But the disappointing answer, it turns out, is: not much.
Dargel’s subjects are all just Hallmark-card vapid, showing little insight or intelligence or even honesty about themselves. One refers to his crime as “the mishap of the deceased,” another blandly thanks his wife “for being there,” another struggles with a joke that makes no sense. Dargel drapes the banalities in sophisticated music, as if to show some redeeming humanity in these destructive lives, but it came across as sentimentalizing rather than revealing. Lipstick, if you’ll excuse the creepy cliche, on a pig.
Speaking of which: Next up was Randall Woolf’s “Blind Pig,” a tangled fairy tale about the 1967 Detroit riots, followed by “Sweet Light Crude” by David T. Little and “The Way of the Mob” by Ruby Fulton. Of the three, “Crude” — a mock love song to oil — was the most subtle and engaging, though Fulton’s use of Google Maps directions to tell the story of the Baltimore Bank Riots of 1835 had a dry, deadpan charm.
But the real climax of the evening was Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together,” inspired by the Attica prison riots of 1971. It's spare music built from a single riff, and slowly gathered in power as the text — a self-admiring screed from the 1960s bomber Sam Melville, who was killed at Attica — is chanted over and over and over again. Yes, there’s a hectoring quality to it, and yes, the thing reeks of self-righteousness and the musty revolutionary politics of 50 years ago. But Newspeak’s gutsy soprano Mellissa Hughes, leading the ensemble with fire and purpose, ratcheted the work to a wild, intoxicating pitch, with fine playing all night from the entire group — particularly the dangerously gifted Courtney Orlando, who sat in at the last minute for violinist Caleb Burhans.
Art museums aren’t always ideal places to hear music — the echoey galleries, folding chairs and awkward sight lines can make concerts a bit of a trial. But the small (and often overlooked) Kreeger Museum on Foxhall Road is a striking exception to the rule. Not only does its music room have some of the best acoustics in town, but the whole museum — a modernist masterpiece designed by Philip Johnson in 1963 — has an almost musical sense of flow and movement to it, with soaring ceilings and expanses of glass that open onto sculpture gardens awash in Henry Moore’s voluptuously abstract nudes.
A perfect setting, in other words, for a summer music festival, and on Friday night, the museum’s annual June Chamber Series opened with a concert by the American Chamber Players that seemed designed to please — two hours of lushly melodic and mostly romantic-era music, with nary a dissonance to irk the tender ear. “Not all great music has to be tragic,” Miles Hoffman, the ensemble’s leader and violist, assured the audience. “If it makes you smile, that’s okay!”
That’s not a bad philosophy for a summer evening, and Hoffman delivered as promised. The program opened with the Serenade in C for string trio by the Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi, a warm, glowing and almost nostalgic work from 1902 — a sort of last gasp of romanticism as the angst-ridden 20th century got underway. It’s an elegant piece with something for everyone, from the lush romanza to the spirited, Hungarian-flavored finale, and even the darting little scherzo dished out one ravishing melody after another. The players — violinist Joanna Maurer, cellist Stephen Balderston and Hoffman on viola — turned in a fine performance, perhaps more dry than swooning, but none the worse for that.
The flutist Sara Stern (with Anna Stoytcheva at the piano) then took the stage for Prokofiev’s astonishing Sonata in D for flute and piano. Written in the depths of World War II, it’s a songlike and surprisingly optimistic work, with little of the searing anguish of the composer’s wartime Violin Sonata No. 1 (which Maurer played so magnificently at last summer’s Kreeger series). But it’s hardly a pleasant little diversion — to these ears, there’s a kind of bittersweet anger driving the work, and it sounds best when played with a snarl inside the smiles, a loaded gun behind the exuberant melodies. Stern brought a thoughtful and lyrical depth to the sonata, but she seemed to pull her punches a bit, and her playing never quite erupted into the full-throated, triumphal ecstasy the work demands.
Two works from the early 19th century rounded out the evening, the entertaining Duo in C for violin and viola by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, and a trio by Carl Maria von Weber. Hoffmeister is better known as a publisher than as a composer, but his music has an easy, likable charm to it, and the duo gave Maurer and Hoffman (who has an easy, likable charm himself) an opportunity to play just for the fun of it, which they clearly did.
Weber hasn’t gotten much respect from history, remembered for a couple of not-bad operas but otherwise largely ignored. That may be a mistake; Stravinsky, for one, thought his music had genius, and it’s official policy at our house not to argue with Stravinsky. It’s even harder to argue with the drop-dead beauty of Weber’s Trio in G Minor for flute, cello and piano, a work of striking melodic inventiveness and subtle drama, which received a beautifully balanced and sonorous performance, Stern’s quicksilver flute tones glinting against the dark rich currents of Balderston’s cello. A deeply satisfying work, and a fitting close to the evening.
The Kreeger series continues this week, with performances on Tuesday and Friday of more summery music from Schubert, Mozart, Barber, Brahms and others, performed by the American Chamber Players, a fine ensemble well worth hearing.
The German cellist Peter Hoerr has no lack of subtle, interesting ideas, but he had two big hurdles to overcome at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night. One was the notorious acoustics of the West Garden Court, which tend to swamp gentler-voiced instruments in a sea of reverberation. The other was the cellist’s partner for the evening, the Finnish pianist Henri Sigfridsson — whose driving, full-speed-ahead approach often seemed to leave the more introspective Hoerr hanging on for dear life.
It made, at times, for a disconcerting evening. Listening to two players as accomplished as these should be one of music’s great pleasures — a dialogue between distinctive, finely tuned musical minds that brings out the best in both. And the program — a Classical-era mix of Beethoven, Mozart and Jean-Louis Duport — was varied enough to let the two cut loose and just play.
But from the opening notes of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in F, Op. 5, No. 1, Hoerr and Sigfridsson seemed not to be quite on the same page. As the cellist unhurriedly explored the introduction, letting the music blossom and gently gather steam, Sigfridsson seemed eager to shift the work into high gear. Loud, fast and determined, the pianist steamrolled over the cellist’s quiet phrasing, and as Hoerr fought to hold his own, his tone became rougher and strident — a pattern that continued for much of the evening.
That said, there was no lack of excitement in the playing. The program, which included Beethoven’s “Twelve Variations” in F Major, Op. 66, Mozart’s “Nine Variations on a Minuet,” K. 573 and Duport’s rarely heard “Nocturne” in B-flat, gave both players room to display their virtuosity, and the climax came with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A Major, Op. 69 — a ravishing work, which received a strong and heartfelt performance. But to these ears, it was the encore — one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” — that showed Hoerr and Sigfridsson at their best, so in tune with each other that, for the first time all evening, they seemed to be playing as one.
WWith its series of concerts every Tuesday at noon, the Church of the Epiphany, at 13th and G Streets NW, serves up what may be the best lunchtime bargain in town: Enjoy an hour of superb music, and pay what you like. This week’s concert featured a fine young piano, clarinet and violin trio, Pulse Chamber Music, in a mostly lighthearted program that showcased two new works from contemporary American composers.
Commissioning new music, pianist Marina Radiushina told the audience, is one of the ensemble’s key aims, and the program opened with the delightful “Semi-Suite,” written for the group by the Miami-based composer Thomas Sleeper. Despite his name, there’s nothing somnolent about Sleeper’s music — the suite proved to be a well-caffeinated collection of alert little dance movements, full of surprising twists and intricate ideas. Bringing a distinctly modern language to a baroque-era form, Sleeper balanced the best of both eras, keeping a deft touch throughout the five concise, quick-witted movements. The trio played it with confidence and razor-edged clarity — no easy task, given the church’s daunting acoustics.
Aram Khachaturian’s 1932 “Trio” is an early work from the composer’s student days, but it’s a rich and deeply engaging masterpiece nonetheless, steeped in the biting folk melodies of his native Armenia. Clarinetist Margaret Donaghue Flavin, trading lines with violinist Scott Flavin, brought a dark, emotionally complex edge to this often-melancholy work, whose dissonances and rhythms sometimes seem to be fighting each other. It’s not an easy piece to bring off, but Pulse played it with such intelligence and naturalness that it seemed virtually spontaneous.
The afternoon closed with the colorful “Jobs” by Dave Rimelis. It’s a series of four musical “portraits” that portray a plumber with a leaky pipe, a photographer catching an elusive moment, an elevator operator stuck between floors and a street vendor in the city, all done in the kind of playful spirit found in French music of the 1930s. The Pulse players gave it a warm and affectionate reading, and when brought back for an encore, played an elegant arrangement of the second of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano.
If the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium is the revered dowager of Washington’s chamber music scene, then the Atlas Performing Arts Center — in the heart of the hipster H Street corridor — must be its sexy granddaughter with the tattoos. Maybe that’s why it was picked for Thursday night’s edgy, high-intensity program by violinist Jennifer Koh, the second in this week’s Library-sponsored concerts featuring the music of West Coast composer John Adams.
When Koh was in town a couple of months ago, she brought her near-flawless technique to an orchestral performance with players from the Curtis Institute. But Thursday’s concert (with Reiko Uchida at the piano) was a far more intimate encounter, built around particularly intense — and often white-hot — works from the past hundred years. Koh played with eloquent intensity all evening, opening boldly with Leos Janacek’s “Sonata” — a work written during World War I and so steeped in bleak foreboding that even its tender ballade seethes with anguish. Koh turned in a detailed, often severe reading with a delicately brutal edge, and seemed to set in motion a powerful momentum — both musical and emotional — that carried throughout the evening.
Written in 2002 for solo violin, “Lachen verlernt” (“Laughing unlearnt”) by Esa-Pekka Salonen is a brilliant tour de force, building from a tranquil melody to an exhilarating whirlwind of sound, and Koh turned in a bravura performance, equal parts intelligence, fiery virtuosity and mischievous smiles. Schubert’s charming Sonata in A, D. 574, Op. 162 followed as a respite (think dappled sunlight and frolicking little lambs), and a chance for Koh to marshal her forces for Bela Bartok’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin — another wartime piece.
Bartok was wasting away from illness when he wrote this work, but you’d never know it from the raw intensity of the thing. It’s a masterpiece of counterpoint — at its heart is a crazily difficult fugue full of rapid-fire leaps of register, double- and triple-stops, and subtle shifts of emphasis — but more than that it’s a cri de coeur of almost overwhelming emotional depth. And from both a technical standpoint (the range of violin colors she commands is astounding) and an interpretive one, Koh played it with absolute commitment — an unforgettable performance full of fire and penetrating insight.
But the most purely enjoyable work on the program may have been Adams’s “Road Movies,” a work that the composer himself introduced as a celebration of “that great American institution of driving.” And, yes — we do love hurtling down the highway with the top down and the wind in our hair, scattering pedestrians as we fly into the future, and “Road” beautifully captures that heady excitement of freedom and infinite possibility. With Uchida laying down a groove on the piano, Koh surfed rambunctiously over the driving rhythms — an all-too-short ride in a very fast machine.
May 29 marks the 100th anniversary of the scandalous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” -- when a near-riot broke out in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées -- and performances of this still-spectacular work are being staged all over the world this month. One of the most striking may have been Sunday evening’s performance by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, in the Atrium of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. With its slashing angles, kinetic spaces and eruptive heights, the Atrium echoes the Rite’s own brash and fearless modernism — and from that perspective, at least, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting.
“Echo,” though, is the operative word here, and the merciless acoustics of the huge Atrium presented a constant challenge to conductor Kim Allen Kluge. Opening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s picturesque “Scheherazade,” Kluge drew a sensuous, evocative performance from the Alexandria players, but between the endless reverberations and the low ambient rumble of the place, the music often sounded as if it were coming through the PA system at Union Station. Delicate lines were swallowed in the immensity, crisp gestures became muddy with echo, and a squalling infant in the opening section (parents: please turn off these devices before the performance!) suggested that concert halls do, in the end, have certain advantages.
But if Scheherazade’s subtleties suffered, the “Rite” positively thrived. This is elemental, even savage music, a ballet in which a pagan dancer dances herself to death, and the Atrium seemed to magnify Stravinsky’s driving, asymmetrical rhythms and punching, explosive gestures to an almost overpowering pitch.
Kluge is superb at high-voltage works like this — if you haven’t heard him conduct, you’re missing a great musical experience — and turned in a taut, visceral reading, perhaps the most exciting heard here in years.
“Rite” was written as a dance, of course, and for this performance seven members of the Bowen McCauley Dance troupe joined the orchestra in a ballet choreographed by Lucy Bowen McCauley. Unfortunately, the Atrium itself seemed to work against them. Dressed in dun-colored costumes and dancing on a black mat, the dancers became increasingly difficult to see as the natural light of the Atrium darkened, and with the spotlights aimed elsewhere — at the art, at the audience, everywhere but the performers themselves — they finally turned into shadows, dancing in the dark. But what was visible was lyrical indeed, and kudos to the troupe for soldiering on — particularly Alicia Curtis, who perished quite beautifully in the Sacrificial Dance that closes the work.