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.
When Buddy Guy and Quinn Sullivan take the stage at the Birchmere on Monday night, it might not look, at first, like they have a whole lot in common.
There’s Guy, the legendary blues guitarist. Born in 1936 to a sharecropper family in Louisiana, he built his first guitar out of baling wire and a piece of wood, took a bus to Chicago in the 1950’s to cut his teeth with Muddy Waters, and rose to global stardom with a fiery, anything-goes style that influenced superstars from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton. At 78, he’s an undisputed giant of the blues — a six-time Grammy winner, a National Medal of the Arts honoree, and a musician Clapton himself once called “the best guitar player alive.”
Then there’s Sullivan. He’s fifteen. He lives with his parents in the comfortable suburb of New Bedford, Mass., where he’s a sophomore in high school. He’s clean-cut, a bit awkward, almost painfully polite — the boy you want your daughter to date. When he was little, he liked to dress up in a Sergeant Pepper outfit, in homage to his idol, John Lennon.
But Quinn Sullivan may also be the most gifted guitar prodigy on the planet, a blues player of jaw-dropping virtuosity and depth who could turn out to be the Clapton of his generation. With two albums under his belt, he’s already played everywhere from the Montreux Jazz Festival to Madison Square Garden, and shared a stage with B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks — as well Buddy Guy himself, who met the young player seven years ago, took him under his wing, and has been touring with him ever since.
“Quinn’s the most amazing young man I’ve ever seen,” says Guy. “His knowledge of the guitar is unbelievable, and he plays like someone thirty or forty or fifty years old, not like some kid. He’s like lightening — he strikes you, and you have to stop and say, ‘What in the world is this?’”
Sullivan’s talent had been clear since the age of three, when he got his first guitar — a First Act acoustic — as a present, and started picking out songs by ear. At an age when most kids are grappling with “Chopsticks,” he taught himself “Blackbird” and “Here Comes the Sun.”
“I was a huge Beatles freak,” he says, laughing. “Every Christmas I’d get a different outfit — the Sergeant Pepper, the white suit from Abbey Road — and that was really the start. I would listen to their music, and try to play it.”
He began lessons two years later, and progressed so quickly that by six he’d been featured on a Boston news program, written his first song (“Sing, Dance, Clap Your Hands”), and performed on the Ellen Degeneres Show. But it wasn’t a high-pressure childhood, he says. His parents took him to a lot of concerts (his father is a former rock drummer), but other than that he just went to school, practiced when he felt like it, and sat in with the Toe Jam Puppet Band at the local zoo.
“Instead of being with the kids dancing, I’d be up on stage playing along,” he says. “That sort of sums up my childhood.”
But a DVD of Eric Clapton’s 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival opened Sullivan’s eyes to the blues, and to Buddy Guy himself, and when the famous bluesman turned up in New Bedford in early 2007 for a gig at the Zeiterion Theater, Sullivan’s father managed to get them backstage. The boy — then all of eight years old — asked Guy to autograph the little Squier Stratocaster he’d brought along. When Guy handed the guitar back, he asked the second-grader to show him what he could do.
“He asked me to play a few licks, and I did,” says Sullivan. “And he said: ‘Be ready when I call you.’ I was, like — what?”
Midway through the show, Guy called Sullivan onstage, and for the next ten minutes (there’s a video online) the two traded licks as if they’d been playing together for years. Shifting from style to style (a little Voodoo Child, a little Sweet Home Chicago), Guy tossed out tougher and tougher lines, as Sullivan — barely as tall as the amplifiers, but as cool as they come — tossed them right back. The crowd roared.
“I couldn’t believe the way he was playing,” says Guy. “He was playing Clapton, Hendrix, everybody. When I saw how good he was, I thought, ‘I’m gonna hit some of these licks and run you crazy.’ And man, the way that kid was playing it was like, ‘Show me something I don’t know, Buddy!’ And I said to his dad, ‘Somebody else needs to know this kid can play this well.’”
It was the start of a high-powered apprenticeship. Guy began bringing Sullivan on tour with him, guiding his development, introducing him to other musicians and teaching him the business of music. They played the Hollywood Bowl, the Apollo, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Experience Hendrix tour. There were appearances on Oprah and The Today Show, and they played the Crossroads Guitar Festival together last year.
And when Guy recorded his 2008 album “Skin Deep,” he brought Sullivan in for a solo on “Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes” — a sign, if any were still needed, that he saw Sullivan as his musical heir.
“When you’re with him all the time, you learn so much,” says Sullivan, whose playing has matured, since that first meeting seven years ago, into a sophisticated, introspective style reminiscent of Clapton, but with a rougher edge and a turn-on-a-dime feeling of spontaneity. “With Buddy, nothing’s planned out on stage,” he says. “He hates set lists, and there’s a lot of improvising. I kind of know what’s going to happen when I get up on stage — but sometimes he just messes with me.”
“To be honest with you, I can’t show him nothing!” says Guy, laughing. “When I was that age, I didn’t even know how to play a radio.”
Sullivan’s starting to emerge from his mentor’s shadow. He tours with Guy several months of the year, keeping up with high school through online courses. But he’s ditched the Beatles mop-top of his childhood, released two albums on his own — 2011’s “Cyclone” and last year’s “Getting There” — and has another in the works. And like Guy — who calls himself a “caretaker” of the blues — he’s getting ready to bringing the blues to his own generation.
“Muddy, B.B. King, all the great musicians, told me: ‘Look son, keep it alive. Keep it going,’” says Guy.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this music. And I think Quinn will do the same.”
Classical music may be hanging on for dear life in the United States, but in China, it’s just getting into high gear. The conservatories are packed, state-of-the-art concert halls are blossoming and new ensembles are forming at a rapid clip. So it was fascinating to hear the China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra — at seven years old, among the youngest in the new crop — present a distinctive and often quite powerful program at the Kennedy Center on Monday night.
The performance, part of the orchestra’s inaugural North American tour, opened with perhaps the most captivating work on the program, the 1999 orchestral suite “Wu Xing (The Five Elements)” from composer Chen Qigang. It’s a meditative work of great delicacy, evoking the essence of water, fire, earth, wood and metal through nuanced, intuitive textures and otherworldly colors. Conductor Lü Jia took an appropriately minimalist approach, drawing a transparent, beautifully detailed reading from the orchestra.
Yuja Wang, a dynamic young pianist who has been winning acclaim for her recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, joined the orchestra for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Wang’s technique is dazzling, and she lets you know it. It was one of the more high-octane takes on Ravel you could ever hope to hear — glittering and sparkling as it raced from start to finish. Great fun, but the orchestra (the wind section, in particular) was sometimes left gasping in the dust and so, to these ears, was some of the music’s character, which needs a little more room to breathe.
Dvorak’s richly melodic Symphony No. 8 closed the program. It was a wise choice. Lü Jia has built his reputation in opera and has a great feel for the kind of outsized drama and sweeping gestures that this symphony abounds in. The orchestra seemed fully in its element as well, turning in a big-boned reading full of soaring, thundering grace and exceptionally fine playing from the strings.
What, exactly, are they putting in the water at the Marlboro Music Festival?
Not only is the virtuosity of “Musicians From Marlboro” (an ensemble of festival alumni who tour the country every year) consistently jaw-dropping, but — as they showed Thursday night at the Freer Gallery — the freshness, rich imagination and sheer vitality of their playing is enough to make even the most jaded concertgoer edge to the front of his seat.
Take, for instance, the larger-than-life performance of Endre Szervánszky’s “Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola,” which opened the program. Hungarian to its bones, it’s a lyrical, earthy showpiece for the flute, steeped in folk melodies and unabashedly out to charm. Flutist Marina Piccinini’s enthusiasm for the work was infectious, and she turned in an extroverted and full-blooded performance, with Nikki Chooi on violin and the riveting violist Wenting Kang — who stood out even in a supporting role.
Harpist Sivan Magen and the Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian joined Piccinini for the far more delicate “Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp” by Claude Debussy. Evanescent and chimerical, it shimmers with the exotic colors of a dream — and bares, from time to time, a set of sharp and elegant fangs. Piccinini’s playing captured that hallucinatory sense of the work, dancing over Magen’s deft acrobatics on the harp, while Kashkashian grounded it all with a darker, complex and sometimes wonderfully savage approach.
György Kurtág is one of the most gifted composers of this or any other era, and his string quartet Op. 28 from 1989 — the “Officium Breve in Memoriam Andreae Szervánszky” — is among his most deeply moving works. Spare, suggestive and aphoristic, the work’s 15 brief movements form a profound meditation on death and loss, closing with a hymn-like movement that ends — almost heartbreakingly — in mid-phrase. Kashkashian and Chooi were joined by David McCarroll on violin and cellist Karen Ouzounian for an exceptionally thoughtful reading of this searing and flawless work.
Beethoven’s String Quintet in C, Op. 29, closed the program, and if you like middle-period Beethoven — lively, charming, a little rambunctious, without the vertiginous depths of his later music — then you were in luck. McCarroll set the tone with a light, fluid touch, and feisty interplay among all the players made for a spirited end to the evening.