Orchestras tend to be cautious things, obliged by economics to stick to well-trod musical paths. So it’s always interesting to hear members of the National Symphony Orchestra play chamber music, where they can be as adventurous as they like. That was the case at the Terrace Theater on Sunday afternoon, when the Kennedy Center Chamber Players presented such unusual, rarely heard music as the modernism of Bela Bartok to the lush romanticism of Anton Arensky.
Violinists Marissa Regni and Jane Stewart opened the program with a dozen brief duos by Bartok. Written in the early 1930s as technical studies for the violin, they were never intended for performance, but Bartok being Bartok, neither are they light throwaways. Biting, playful, introspective and steeped in Hungarian folk music, the duos were as challenging expressively as they were technically, and Regni and Stewart made them sing. Regni was then joined by NSO principal cellist David Hardy for Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. The afternoon’s most familiar work, it also was its deepest and most accomplished — a lean, taut work that Hardy and Regni treated with the cut-to-the-bone seriousness it deserves.
The viola is often overshadowed in chamber music by its siblings in the string family, so the unusual Fantasia for Four Violas, Op. 41, No. 1, by British composer York Bowen, was something of a revelation. A quartet of violas might sound like too much of a good thing, but this warm, elegiac work conjures a striking range of textures and effects and handles them masterfully. It’s heartfelt (in a restrained, English way, of course) and elegant, perhaps a bit stuffy to modern ears but well worth hearing nonetheless.
The music of Arensky — a Russian prodigy who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, drank himself to death at age 45 and, oddly, has a glacier in the Antarctic named after him — is not widely heard anymore, but his Quartet for Violin, Viola, and Two Cellos, Op. 35, from 1895, is a gem. The profound, introspective work written in memory of Tchaikovsky uses the two cellos to beautiful effect, adding depth and darkness without heaviness. The Kennedy Center players brought searing expressive purpose to the music, particularly in the massive second movement, with its elaborate variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky’s.
You didn’t have to be a fan of El Greco to enjoy the National Gallery of Art’s musical homage to the Spanish Renaissance painter on Sunday evening. (The gallery is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the painter’s death.) In fact, the concert was more a foil to El Greco’s thundering religious intensity than a reflection of it, with the Baltimore Consort presenting a colorful, wide-ranging program of Renaissance music that was long on charm and cheerfully short on religious fervor.
Much of that charm came from the music itself, a collection of secular romances, dances and popular songs known as villancicos that would have been popular around the turn of the 17th century, when El Greco lived in Spain. Drawn largely from court songbooks of the time, the program wove tender love songs together with virtuosic instrumental works and comic songs from such composers as Juan del Encina, Alonso Mudarra and Diego Ortiz (and, of course, the ubiquitous “Anonymous”), with superb playing from the consort’s virtuosi, particularly Ronn McFarlane on lute and Mindy Rosenfeld on flute and recorder.
But it was Brazilian countertenor José Lemos who really stole the spotlight. Lemos was front and center for most of the evening, bringing a light touch, engaging wit and perfect control to everything he sang, from the flirtatious “Yo me soy la morenica” to Juan del Encina’s comical “Cucú, Cucú, Cucucú.” The gallery’s West Garden Court tends to swallow soft-voiced Renaissance instruments — viols and baroque guitars are no match for its swampy acoustics — but Lemos set his voice perfectly against the consort players, bringing deep feeling and a deft, improvisatory freshness to the music.
In “Oscillations” — her debut album released earlier this year — the Israeli pianist Einav Yarden paired Beethoven with Stravinsky to striking effect, tying that unlikely couple together with imagination and exceptionally vivid playing. She brought those same qualities to a recital of Bach, Ravel and Schubert at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, and while the afternoon may have been a bit short on adrenaline — this was not a keyboard-thrashing display of virtuosity — it showed Yarden to be a probing, incisive pianist with a beautiful sound and an impressively transparent touch.
That transparency was quickly evident in Bach’s “ English Suite No. 2 in A minor,” which opened the program. If you like Glenn Gould’s Bach, you’ll like Yarden’s: crystalline and precisely balanced down to its molecules, with superb voice-leading and a sense of purpose in every note. Yarden might not have the hyper-immaculate technique that’s become the new normal in classical music, but if you looked past the minor flubs, she turned in a reading that had something much more important: a sense of immense majesty, tempered with gentleness and quiet grace.
Maurice Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales” from 1911 gave Yarden the opportunity to display her more lyrical side. This suite of eight waltzes still sounds adventurous and even edgy, and Yarden seemed to revel in its quick shifts of light and dark, its shimmering textures and its playful, sly wit — bringing the same clarity to Ravel that she brought to Bach.
Piano recitals often close with a high-octane piece designed to get the pulse racing, but Yarden chose Schubert’s “Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894” — a work that glows with serenity for a good half hour, then just sort of falls asleep. There’s little of the heaven-storming that Schubert dishes out in his other sonatas, but Yarden brought a quiet sense of drama to the work, and the delicate mix of wistfulness and thundering that she found in the Andante was worth the price of admission.
Still, it was a welcome treat to hear Stravinsky’s “Piano-Rag-Music” as an encore. This spirited, jagged work from 1918 (think Cubist jazz, with a Russian edge) is not often heard — and Yarden’s quick, lively reading brought it alive.
It's probably fair to say that Hans Abrahamsen is not the world’s most exciting composer. His music is deliberately spare, enigmatic, understated. It moves about as quickly as a glacier on valium. Simple musical gestures are repeated, and repeated, and then repeated some more. If you’re looking for drama or exuberance or gut-wrenching passion in music — or even just evidence of a pulse — this rather muted Danish composer may not be your cup of tea.
But Abrahamsen has his champions, including the formidable young Jack Quartet, which performed all four of his string quartets on Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection as part of the gallery’s Leading European Composers series. The works trace an arc through the composer’s career, from the teenaged Quartet No. 1 (“Ten Preludes”) from 1973, to the gentle last quartet, completed in 2012 after 20 years of gestation, and often display considerable musical imagination and mastery of a range of styles.
Yet despite a committed performance from the Jack players, the overall effect was, in the end, underwhelming. Abrahamsen should be taken on his own terms, of course, and the distant, withheld writing that runs through these works has a certain serene beauty.
But there’s a fine line between transcendent minimalism and brain-crushing tedium, and the flashes of poetry and fire in Abrahamsen’s music often seemed to wash away in a sea of musical thumb-twiddling. Patience — much patience — was required, and in the end, little of importance seemed revealed.
It would be tough to get more up-to-the-minute than the concert of contemporary Chinese music at the Freer Gallery of Art on Saturday, where four of the six works on the program were written just this year. And it would be equally hard to find such a range of richly imaginative new work — steeped in tradition yet thoroughly 21st-century — that transcends nationalism but retains, at its heart, a compelling and distinctive Chinese sensibility.
That description might also apply to the venerable New York-based ensemble Music From China, which designed a program to dovetail with the new Freer exhibit “The Traveler’s Eye.” Combining such traditional instruments as the erhu (a two-string fiddle), pipa (lute) and dizi (bamboo flute) with cello and Western percussion, the group opened with the 18th-century reverie “A Moonlit River in Spring,” then embarked on more modern journeys in Chen Yi’s lively, folk-song-based “Three Dances From China South” (2014), Eric Moe’s “A Panoramic Guide to Glacier Travel” (a dense new work that unfolds with the stately gravity of glaciers) and the poignant, plaintive and moving “Leaving Home” (2014), by the ensemble’s erhu virtuoso, Wang Guowei.
But the standouts may have been two striking and very exciting works by Zhou Long and Huang Ruo. Long’s “Mount a Long Wind” is a vivid, edge-of-the-seat tone-poem from 2004 depicting the voyage of a Chinese dragon boat through a gathering storm. Ruo’s “The Murmuring Path” wasn’t as overtly specific — the composer describes it as “a personal journey” — but was just as perfectly drawn: an expressive and fiercely inventive new work, exploding with off-kilter rhythms, otherworldly colors and wild, galloping imagination.
Even at its most secular, the music of J.S. Bach is so radiant with religious feeling that to title a concert “Bach and the Divine” seems almost redundant. But on Saturday night at Georgetown’s Dumbarton Church, the PostClassical Ensemble — a group more known for revolution than reverence — brought a lively and very human sense of spirituality to an all-Bach program that showcased the remarkable singing of bass-baritone Kevin Deas.
The evening opened with the “Air” from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068, in a limpid reading that embodied much of what makes Bach’s music “divine” — the luminous beauty, the sense of a universe in perfect balance, the unity at the heart of the music’s intricate complexity. But music director Angel Gil-Ordóñez (whose wonderful conducting style is equal parts dance, bullfighting and ecstatic bliss) also brought great warmth and even sensuality to the music, setting the tone for rest of the evening.
Deas and oboist Igor Leschishin took the leading roles in the cantata “Ich habe genug” BWV 82, Leschishin’s deft, alert touch providing a fine foil to Deas’s clear and incisive voice. Deas brought an introspective power to his singing, never striving for effect or the stentorian bellowing that baritones are sometimes prey to. He was equally convincing in the lilting aria “Mache dich mein Herze rein” from the St. Matthew Passion.
Leschishin returned for the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in D Minor, BWV 1060R, joined by Netanel Draiblate, the ensemble’s new concertmaster. Draiblate is a find — a violinist who combines confidence and virtuosity with a playful musical personality — and the concerto came off with such vitality that it sounded as if Bach had written it last week.
The Duke Ellington School of the Arts Chamber Singers joined the ensemble for a lively, hugely fun reading of the choral cantata “Nun ist das Heil,” BWV 50, which closed the evening. The young singers turned in an extroverted performance, and Gil-Ordóñez immediately called on them to sing it again — joined, this time, by the audience. The sing-along didn’t find many takers, despite Gil-Ordóñez’s infectious enthusiasm; it’s not an easy piece, scores were few and far between and perhaps we’re all a little shy. But the effort underscored the refreshing lack of stuffiness that has become the hallmark of the PostClassical Ensemble’s concerts — still among the most interesting in town.
Maya Beiser, the reigning queen of the avant-garde cello, has been pushing out the boundaries of her instrument for years, but in a rapturous, high-intensity performance on Saturday night at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, it was clear she’s now aiming at almost transcendental heights. Switching between electric and amplified acoustic cellos, using electronics to build huge and sweeping juggernauts of sound, Beiser knitted pop and overtly spiritual music together — and found a deep, almost devotional thread running through everything she played.
Joined by percussionist Glenn Kotche (from the alt-rock band Wilco) and bassist Gyan Riley, Beiser devoted the first half of the evening to “uncovers” of well-known rock and blues songs, in provocative re-imaginings by the composer Evan Ziporyn. There’s always a whiff of preciousness when the art crowd goes pop, but these were far from the insipid little arrangements that plague “crossover” classical recitals. Beiser turned in gutsy and aggressive performances of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight” and several others. And while Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” took an unfortunate beating, Kotche’s own “Three Parts Wisdom” was a soaring, gorgeous tour de force for solo cello, with Beiser accompanying herself in real time through electronic delays.
But the deepest and most extraordinary music-making of the evening, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, came after intermission. From behind a row of flickering candles, Beiser (solo now, but still amplified) presented three overtly spiritual works that together seemed to form a ritualistic whole, building from introspection into ecstatic communion. Singing in Aramaic, she opened with a radiant, hymn-like treatment of “Kol Nidrei” — the ancient Jewish prayer — written for her by the Muslim composer Mohammed Fairouz, followed by the serene, minimalist “All Vows” by Michael Gordon.
But it was Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops” that lifted the evening to an exalting, almost breathless new plane. The 25-minute work (built on just intonation, ancient modes and electronic loops) opens innocuously, with buoyant riffs over a quiet drone, and you think you’re in for a travelogue. But its power builds with unstoppable force, deepening and expanding with irresistible energy, and by the climax Beiser was filling the hall with a vast ecstatic ocean of sound.