The young Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon — whose playing has been winning accolades lately, both in chamber performances and as a soloist — presented a program of largely Romantic-era music at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, and he left no doubt that he is a musician of unusual power. Aside from the immaculate technique and deft sense of phrasing, Várjon brought something far more rare — a tangible sense of character in virtually everything he played, with incisive and strikingly flavorful interpretations of Beethoven, Schumann and Bartók .
Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 26, No. 12 opened the afternoon. It’s perhaps most famous for the somber funeral march at its core, and Várjon turned in a gripping reading of that shadow-filled movement — bleak at its heart but tinged with radiance — and set it vividly against the playful Scherzo and robust Allegro that frame it. He took an even more nuanced approach to Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke,” Op. 12, a collection of eight coloristic pieces that shift back and forth between dreamy and passionate. From the nocturnal “Des Abends” that opens the work, to the whimsical “Grillen” and the deeply felt “Ende vom Lied” that closes it, Várjon played with utter naturalness, almost as if improvising.
It was in the middle works of the afternoon — by his fellow Hungarian, Bela Bartók — that the pianist seemed to really come into his own. The early, dark-toned Two Elegies, Op. 8b are expressive and often richly chromatic works, falling somewhere between romanticism and impressionism and shot through with the torments of love. (Bartók wrote one elegy after losing his first love and the next after getting married to someone else; make of that what you will.) Várjon played these intimate cris de coeur as if straight from his own heart — an intense, revelatory performance that he followed with Bartók’s engaging Sonatina and eight pieces from “15 Hungarian Peasant Songs.”
The Library of Congress is more than a little proud of its historical musical instruments, particularly the violins, violas and cellos made by Antonio Stradivari at the turn of the 18th century. It’s a rare treat to hear them played, and rarer still to hear five of them together — which may account for the crowds that jammed Coolidge Auditorium on Wednesday night for the “Antonio Stradivari Anniversary Concert,” when the Parker Quartet (with guest violist Kikuei Ikeda) presented a program that highlighted the instruments’ distinctively warm and engaging sound.
But it was the playing, rather than the celebrity instruments, that really impressed. The Parker opened with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D, and while it may not be the composer’s most interesting work — it’s pleasant, well-mannered and agreeable to a fault — the ensemble’s exceptional virtuosity was clear right out of the gate, with violinists Daniel Chong and Ying Xue leading a playful, fast-paced and imaginative interpretation.
The tone quickly shifted with Dmitri Shostakovich’s troubling and enigmatic String Quartet No. 9, and the contrast with Mendelssohn could not have been more stark. Biting, complex and intensely personal, this is music steeped in dread — the whole waking nightmare that Shostakovich endured — and the Parker brought it off with quiet, probing intelligence. Subdued rather than edgy, it may have been a bit too soft around the edges to satisfy hard-core Shostakovich-ians; it depends on how straight you take your angst.
Angst was nowhere to be found in the closing work, the rapturous String Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97, by Antonin Dvorak, which he wrote on holiday in Iowa in the summer of 1893. Dvorak said he was out to write “something really melodious and simple,” and he inarguably succeeded. The work (for which the Parker players were joined by Ikeda, of the illustrious Tokyo Quartet) floats by like a sunny summer day, smiling and open-hearted, surging with uplifting melodies and an unshakable conviction that all is well with the world. The players gave it a warm, affectionate and suitably untroubled reading.
Okay, so when did string quartets start getting so hip? The ultra-cool Brooklyn Rider quartet was in town Saturday night, and on Sunday afternoon the equally adventurous Calder Quartet — which has teamed with rock bands such as The National and Dirty Projectors, and been featured on David Letterman’s and Conan O’Brien’s shows — put on a high-octane performance at the Phillips Collection. But it wasn’t quite the daring program you might have expected; in fact, the Calder kept well to the center lane, balancing angst-ridden Bartok with Schubert’s warmly familiar “Death and the Maiden” quartet, and offering only one piece of music from the past 20 years.
But what a piece it was. The British composer Thomas Adès was in his early 20s when he wrote the stunning “Arcadiana” (1994), and it is indisputably a masterpiece. Made up of seven short “snapshots of paradise” (as Calder violinist Andrew Bulbrook put it), the work comes off as a kind of luminous dreamscape, awash in echoes and shadows and wisps of memory that drift in and out of hearing. It’s all nuance and subtle suggestion, full of inventive writing and evocations of composers from Mozart to Elgar. Not an easy work to bring off, in other words — but Calder found a solid dramatic core that tied the atmospherics together, and by the end you wanted to go out and listen to everything by Adès you could find.
Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 was written in the darkest years of World War I, and from the opening notes it’s clear you’re hearing the sound of a world falling apart. A chilling sense of tragedy runs through it — even the jaunty “Allegro molto capriccioso” gives most ears the creeping jimjams — and it closes with a slow lament that sounds like music from the end of the Earth. The Calder gave it an insightful reading, and its lean, astringent sound fit the work beautifully. But it was a rather measured performance as well, even a bit withheld, and despite the sharpness of Bartok’s bite, it never seemed to quite draw blood.
The heat returned, though, in Schubert’s scorching String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”). For an old warhorse, it still packs a serious kick, and the Calder players took a fresh, modern look at the work, paring away much of the voluptuous swooning and turning in a refreshingly clear-eyed — but no less powerful — account. A fine close to an intriguing, impressive afternoon.
There’s no simple way to describe “Colombine’s Paradise Theater” — the wildly imaginative new music-theater-dance piece by composer Amy Beth Kirsten, performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center last weekend. But it’s a tour de force any way you cut it.
Built on a few fragments of 17th-century poetry and some archetypal characters from Venetian commedia dell’arte, it’s a highly stylized, darkly beautiful love story that’s steeped in myth yet utterly modern. There’s no real plot; the players (the virtuosos of the new-music ensemble "eighth blackbird") act out the roles of a young woman and her two suitors. But the story really unfolds in the rich poetic imagery — both musical and visual — in the shadowy, unsettling world Kirsten creates.
Nothing is what it seems in this nocturnal place; musicians shift from role to role, a flute solo turns to a half-whispered soliloquy, a bass drum begins to glow and becomes the moon, and even the landscape itself is played as an instrument. Yet despite the episodic structure of its 11 movements, “Colombine” unfolds with the seamless, compelling logic of a dream.
This was no pleasant little reverie. Kirsten writes in a fiercely expressionist style, probing the inner states of her characters with a sharp stick. “Colombine” felt driven by nightmares, by primitive, urgent memories swimming unwelcomed to the surface. The players — denizens of this murky world — shriek and growl and pound out rhythms on the ground, entwine around one another, engage in luminous duets and stalk one another in intricate dances of love. There’s a beguiling element of the grotesque throughout, and the music is complex and multilayered, rich in allusions, and often extraordinarily beautiful. When the lights come up at the end, you feel as though you’ve awoken from some strange, ancient ritual — and you want to go back.
Much of the credit for this superb production goes to the "eighth blackbird" players, who performed the work masked, in costume, in constant motion — and entirely from memory. Pianist Lisa Kaplan brought nuanced passion to her role as the beleaguered Colombine, flutist Timothy Munro made a fine, sinister Harlequin, and percussionist Matthew Duvall brought the Pierrot role alive as he navigated the vast array of drums and bells that comprised the set itself. The considerable visual poetry of the production, meanwhile, came from the inventive director and set designer Mark DeChiazza.
You might expect a string quartet named Enso — after the calligraphic circle that serves as a symbol of Zen Buddhism — to have a certain detachment from earthly things, maybe even an affinity for the pared-down music of John Cage or Morton Feldman. But this young ensemble has gone in the opposite direction, digging up chamber music by 19th-century composers more famous for their operas. At the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Tuesday, Enso turned in an emphatically non-detached evening of lush, passionate music by Verdi, Puccini and Richard Strauss.
Strauss wrote his String Quartet in A, Op. 2, in 1880, when he was 16, and as you might expect, there’s teenage posturing (and Mendelssohn worship) in almost every note. But cut the kid some slack; this lavishly romantic quartet might not be quite mature, but it’s skillfully done, full of life and passages of great beauty — particularly the luminous andante cantabile, where Strauss’s emerging musical identity rears its head.
Enso gave Strauss a robust and affectionate reading, then shifted into more serious waters with Puccini’s 1890 “Chrysanthemums.” Ashort but profoundly felt and beautiful work, it was, perhaps, the most deeply satisfying music of the evening, and the quartet brought it off with smoldering power — half honey, half molten lava — and beautifully integrated playing.
Three agreeable, forgettable minuets by Puccini followed before the evening closed with Verdi’s intriguing Quartet for Strings in E Minor. Written almost offhandedly to fill a few empty weeks, it’s the only quartet Verdi composed, and he didn’t use the form to express subtle, intimate musical ideas, as composers tend to do. Instead, there’s an almost theatrical quality to the writing, with big entrances and sotto voce scheming and other exciting goings-on, all tied up with that rarest of rare birds, a Verdi fugue. A great romp all around, and Enso played it with full-throated dramatic intensity. This fine, imaginative ensemble is well worth keeping an eye on.
The vast, vaulting atrium of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art — so immense it can feel like a world of its own — is a spectacular place to see art. But it’s an equally spectacular setting for contemporary music, as composer Steve Antosca proved Sunday evening with the world premiere of “Habitat,” a work for computer and percussion that filled the atrium with a surging, often breathtaking ocean of sound — and turned the huge space into an instrument in its own right.
Antosca revels in pushing traditional instruments (and instrumentalists) beyond their limits, and “Habitat” is written around a single percussionist who embarks on a 40-minute “transformational journey” upward through the atrium. Opening amid a battery of bells and marimbas in the center of the audience, the young virtuoso Ross Karre moved across the gallery to a “prepared” piano, then on to strum Harry Bertoia’s 17-foot-high “Tonal Sculpture,” then up the stairs to the mezzanine and higher still to the bridge that crosses the atrium at its highest level. As he rose from floor to floor, Karre used different instruments to describe a detailed emotional journey — from gentle to stormy to ethereal — before returning to earth to rekindle the original musical ideas, now darker and more profound.
But what made this individual “journey” particularly involving — in a physical, even visceral way — was the way Karre’s playing was transformed by computer musician William Brent, then amplified and broadcast through speakers around the atrium. The result was a complex and wildly colorful palette of sound — the stuff that gongs and wood blocks dream of — that seemed to sweep in huge waves from every direction, as if Karre were playing the atrium itself as a gigantic meta-instrument — and we, the audience, were inside. A fascinating and often compelling new work from Antosca, played with exceptional skill by Karre — who also turned in a fine account of John Cage’s magnificent “Cartridge Music” from 1960, which opened the program.
ringing off a whole afternoon of romantic-era music isn’t easy; all that sighing and swooning and hot-blooded emoting can get a little ripe in modern ears after a while. But in a program of Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, the extroverted cellist Sophie Shao — accompanied by the wondrous Lithuanian pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute — found an eloquent balance between rapture and cool restraint, and turned in a deeply satisfying performance.
Despite (or maybe because of) their distinct personalities, Shao and Jokubaviciute seemed ideally paired with each other. Opening with Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A-flat, Op. 70, Shao threw her head back and leapt in — hair flying and nostrils flaring in fine romantic abandon — as Jokubaviciute accompanied with quiet precision and delicacy, supporting Shao’s sweeping interpretation but bringing a compelling edge and nuance of her own. It made for romanticism at its best: impassioned, even transporting, but with a clear-eyed intelligence that kept it from overheating into mush.
That finely calibrated interplay marked the entire afternoon. Brahms’s spirited Sonata in E Minor, Op. 38, with its restless and sometimes combative back-and-forth between the two players, was a case study in the art of the duet, and Shao held little back in a warm, glowing reading. Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, was equally satisfying — the playing just got better as the afternoon progressed — with an almost palpable connection between the players.
But it may have been Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 69, No. 3, that revealed the two at their best. It’s a subtle work with a kind of quiet nobility to it, and Shao brought both power and insight to her playing. But the piece is as much for piano as it is for cello, and Jokubaviciute may have stolen the show a bit in an absolutely jaw-dropping performance — subtle, complex, almost impossibly detailed and riveting in every way. Jokubaviciute is fast emerging as one of the most gifted young pianists on the scene; kudos to the Phillips (and its adventurous music director, Caroline Mousset) for finding and showcasing talent as remarkable as this.