Fairfax Symphony Orchestra at Harris Theater

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 23, 2014

The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra has built a reputation for vivid, larger-than-life performances, so it was intriguing on Saturday night to hear a scaled-down version of the group in an evening of music for chamber orchestra. And, while the dull acoustics of George Mason University’s Harris Theater didn’t do the players any favors, the program — a thoughtful mix of (mostly) 20th-century works — proved that the FSO can be nearly as powerful in intimate works as it is with blockbusters.

Music director Christopher Zimmerman, not one to coddle the ears, led off with Edgard Varese’s “Octandre,” a work that is still as explosive as it was in its 1924 debut. But after introducing it with great enthusiasm, Zimmerman suddenly pulled his punches. Noting that the modernist masterpiece “might not be for every taste,” he played only the second movement — and asked the audience to e-mail him if we wanted to hear the rest! Well, yes, maestro — we do. Please! Our ears aren’t going to fall off from a little Varese, for heaven’s sake.

But after that minor hiccup, the evening got back on track with Benjamin Britten’s diaphanous and darkly beautiful “Nocturne, op. 60.” An eight-part song cycle built on texts from British poets, it’s a sort of reverie that explores the shifting, elusive world that lies on the edges of sleep. Tenor William Hite brought subtlety and appropriate strangeness to this deeply imaginative music, weaving his singing into the orchestral accompaniment with delicacy and great nuance.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s string quartets stand on their own as some of the most compelling and intimate works in the repertoire. That, alas, didn’t stop Russian violist Rudolf Barshai from inflating several of them into versions for chamber orchestra in 1953, and the “Chamber Symphony in D Major” is what results when you dress up the Fourth Quartet in a big string section, winds, horns and even (horrors!) percussion — and then pull out the stops.

It’s enough to make purists pass a gallstone, and while the arrangement itself really isn’t that bad — and the Fairfax players turned in a fine reading — the work stands as a reminder that more, sometimes, can turn out to be less. A spirited reading of Mozart’s ultra-lyrical Symphony No. 27 in G major, written when the composer was barely out of diapers, brought a lively and light-filled close to the evening.

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 05:27PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

A Winged Victory for the Sullen at the Synagogue at Sixth and I

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 20, 2014

Minimalist music isn’t for every taste. The endlessly repeated phrases, the static harmonies, the general sense of cud-chewing — it can all drive the thinking ear crazy. But when it works, it can be close to exalting, as A Winged Victory for the Sullen (a collaboration between composers Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie) showed in a fascinating and often luminous performance at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Wednesday night.

That’s not to say it was an upbeat evening. Opening with “A Symphony Pathetique” from their debut album, O’Halloran (a pianist best known for his score to the film “Marie Antoinette”) and Wiltzie (on keyboard and guitar) were joined by string players from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and delivered a seamless flow of slow, meditative music throughout the evening, weaving simple musical gestures into pulsing, multilayered clouds of sound that seemed to float — almost weightlessly — over a base of low-pitched drones.

The effect was striking, as if it were the music of some distant celestial orchestra, unfolding with stately and impassive and elemental force. And virtually every work on the program — from the gorgeous “We Played Some Open Chords and Rejoiced” and “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears” to five pieces from their new project “Atomos” and a reworking of Michael Nyman’s first string quartet — evoked that same sense of gravity and simplicity. This was minimalism in skillful hands.

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 11:09AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Sonic Escape at Evermay Estate

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 16, 2014

There may be few concert venues in town as civilized as the Evermay Estate in Georgetown, where you’re greeted at the door by the hosts, offered wine and hors d’oeuvres, and generally invited to make yourself at home. But the real pleasure comes from the young virtuosos showcased in Evermay’s ongoing “Overtures” series, which on Friday night featured the flute-violin-cello trio Sonic Escape in an program that wove together folk and classical music with a light and engaging touch.

It was an evening designed to entertain — one of Haydn’s helium-filled “London” trios was about the weightiest thing on the program — and it did so with a wide-ranging, anything-goes sense of fun. Japanese folk music segued into traditional Scandinavian tunes, Bach melodies were cheerfully fused with Irish gigs, and a funny Canadian waltz got the audience clapping along — all of it tied together with running commentary by flutist Shawn Wyckoff and violinist Maria Kaneko Millar.

It all made for a personable and smile-inducing concert, with fine playing from Wyckoff, Millar and cellist Nan-Cheng Chen. The most interesting music of the evening, though, was not the traditional folk arrangements, but two wonderfully imaginative works by Millar herself. “Mosquito Blue” vividly (and humorously) evoked human’s eternal war with mosquitoes, but it was “Walking the Woods in Twilight” that stole the show. A tribute to the slaves who escaped along the Underground Railroad, it opens in the peace and luminous colors of a summer evening, then builds steadily in tension and rising fear until its final release into freedom. An impressive work from a young composer worth keeping an eye on.

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 10:22AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

The Elias Quartet at the Library of Congress

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 9, 2014

If, like any sensible person, you love the string quartets of Joseph Haydn with a passion beyond all reason, you would have done well to be at the Library of Congress on Friday night. The Elias Quartet — a youngish, much-admired outfit out of Britain — was in town, and opened its rather spectacular recital with the Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2: the last (and maybe the greatest) quartet Haydn wrote.

The Elias players don’t have a particularly rich sound — the word “astringent” comes to mind — but they make up for it with deft phrasing, a fine sense of dramatic pacing and seamless ensemble work. But even more impressive was the interpretive complexity they brought to the Haydn, a perfectly balanced mix of vitality, depth, formal elegance and that playful, flirtatious wit that makes all of Haydn’s quartets so impossible to resist.

There’s not a lot of flirtatious wit in Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky, Op. 28.” It’s better described as a “voiceless requiem in 15 parts” (as lead violinist Sarah Bitloch put it), and it’s steeped in almost unbearable sorrow. But it’s a delicately beautiful work as well, whose concise, resonant fragments blossom into perfect little haikus of sound, as if the mysteries of the universe were being whispered into your ears. The Elias players turned in a subtle, intricately detailed reading.

The evening closed with Beethoven’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2, one of the great “Razumovsky” quartets. The Elias players’ rather bright sound — which served them so well in the Haydn and Kurtag — may have been a slight drawback here, but it was a bold, often thrilling performance nonetheless, from the cosmic meditations of the “Molto Adagio” (which Beethoven said he wrote after “contemplating the harmony of the spheres”) to the galloping “Presto” that closes the work. But some of the most purely enchanting music of the evening came in the encore, a Scottish “Lament for Mulroy” by Donald Grant, the ensemble’s second violinist.

Posted on Monday, March 10, 2014 at 04:08PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

New Music from Anatolia at the Freer Gallery 

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 7, 2014

For millennia, Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor) has been a cultural crossroads, where the arts of East and West met and transformed each other. That kind of cross-fertilization continues, and — as an intriguing concert at the Freer Gallery of Art on Thursday night demonstrated —  is producing music that fuses hard-edged modernism with the deep currents of Turkish and Persian musical traditions.

Madeleine ShapiroThe evening included a range of performers, from Kazem Davoudian (a virtuoso on the santur, a 72-string hammered dulcimer) to the cutting-edge ModernWorks Ensemble. Davoudian provided the most vivid links to tradition, performing two lengthy, impassioned improvisations built on the modes of Persian classical music. Both were sweeping tapestries of sound that evoked landscapes of windswept plains, rolling caravans, frenzied tribal dances and the smoke of wood fires.

The focus of the evening was “Asumani,” a 2012 work for flute and cello by the gifted Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince. It builds spare, questioning music gestures — flavored with microtones and other “extended” instrumental techniques — into a radiant climax before dissolving again into silence. The playful “Lines” (an earlier work for clarinet and piano) showed Ince’s more approachable side, although clarinetist Jo-Ann Sternberg turned in a restrained, low-key performance that never quite took off.

Dancer and choreographer Nejla Yatkin provided a brief dance interlude with her muscular but fluid “What dreams may come . . .” in a world premiere, and cellist Madeleine Shapiro turned in a superb reading of Tolga Tuzun’s “Five Preludes” for solo cello, conjuring up an array of exotic sounds that held together with conviction and purpose.

A set of six “Folk Songs” by the Iranian-born Reza Vali most effortlessly unified tradition with modernism. Vali’s sonic imagination is both sophisticated and vivid — his pairing of a bass flute against high harmonics on the cello was only one of many memorable moments — but there’s a simplicity and directness of expression at the core of his music that made these songs not just interesting but moving. More of Vali’s music is being featured at the Freer on Saturday night.


Posted on Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 11:06AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio at the Terrace Theater

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 1, 2014

Can we just be done with it, and declare the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio the greatest piano trio on the face of the earth?  Sure, there are other worthy groups out there.  But as they showed on Thursday night at the Terrace Theater, the KLR players — together now for an astonishing 37 years — have outpaced the competition in everything from effortless virtuosity to striking originality, and perhaps most of all in the intimate democracy of their ensemble work.  The thinking person’s piano trio, in every way.  

Take, for instance, their impeccable reading of Beethoven’s “Trio in G major, Op. 1, No. 2” which opened the evening.  Beethoven was only 22 when he wrote it, and it’s among his most purely enjoyable pieces, full of the intricate but playful writing that fills the ears (these ears, anyway) with joy.  But the KLR players took the work beyond its surface pleasures, exploring a deep and sometimes dark current that ran from the opening Adagio to the elegant fury of the Finale, and gave the music a huge sense of scale.   A stunning reading, perfectly balanced and rigorously thought out, yet bursting with spontaneity.  

Andre Previn wrote his Piano Trio No. 2 for the KLR players in 2011, and it’s what you might expect from this most cosmopolitain of composers:  a sophisticated, richly-imagined tapestry that draws effortlessly from jazz, hard-edged modernism, Broadway show tunes and stops in between.  It’s steeped in 20th Century angst — ergo, serious — and it’s impossible not to admire Previn’s ability to slide seamlessly from one style to the next.  Yet, despite a sure-footed performance that left the brain cells jumping, the work seemed mostly to be about Previn himself — a display of compositional virtuosity.

If Previn’s work didn’t always touch the heart, Mendelssohn’s “Trio in C minor, Op. 66” grabbed it with both hands and refused to let go.  You could power a small city with the explosive force of this work, and the KLR players gave it a spectacular, almost intoxicating performance, from the darkly playful little Scherzo to the earthy, near-physical punch of the Finale.  A bravura performance, capped to huge applause with a light, well-chosen encore: the Gypsy Rondo from Haydn’s Trio No.  39 in G major.

Posted on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 01:56PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments2 Comments | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Folk Music of Okinawa at the Freer Gallery

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 27, 2014

The traditional folk music of Okinawa isn’t exactly commonplace in American concert halls — you might have an easier time finding Tuvan throat singing or a recital of Namibian hunting chants. But in a rare and fascinating program at the Freer Gallery on Wednesday night, a quartet of Okinawan musicians known as The Ryukyuans presented an evening of songs from the islands of southern Japan that were absolutely stunning in their spare, evocative and often plaintive beauty.

The concert (part of the Freer’s ongoing Music From Japan Festival) included both ancient music and newer, pop-oriented songs, and the connection between them was almost seamless. That may partly be due to the sanshin — a traditional three-stringed instrument known as “the voice of Okinawa” — that was used in every song, but also to the simple and direct expressiveness of all the music, its distinctive flavor and lack of any artifice or pretension.

From the melancholy “Yunta Shora” that opened the program (beautifully sung by Yukito Ara in a clear, sweet voice) to 19th-century love songs such as “Irabu Togani” (given a sense of yearning by singer Isamu Shimoji) and the driving rhythms of traditional dance songs (“Moashibi Chijuya,” sung by Shinobu Matsuda in an eye-popping pink kimono, with Satoshi “Sunday” Nakasone on percussion), the Ryukyuans made a convincing case that this music deserves a much wider audience.

But it was newer songs on the program — written largely by Ara and Shimoji themselves — that may win the most new converts. Light, upbeat, and full of catchy melodies, they blended the direct power of traditional music with the open-hearted charm of pop.

Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 05:36PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint