Does the flute have a more interesting champion right now than Claire Chase? At 35, this New York-based virtuoso has carved out a key role for herself in contemporary music, commissioning and performing a range of new works for flute that have brought much-needed fire to the repertoire.
The indefatigable Chase — she’s also a founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble and a 2012 MacArthur Fellow — has just released her third CD, titled “Density.” On Saturday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, she put on a riveting performance of the music from that disc: a 75-minute tour de force that showed Chase to be among the most electrifying flutists on the planet — and showed the flute as an instrument whose possibilities have only begun to be explored.
Chase tossed out the usual concert conventions, performing alone — accompanied only by electronics or her own pre-recorded flute tracks — and dressed near-invisibly on an almost dark stage, playing the entire program as a highly amplified and uninterrupted whole. The effect was spellbinding. As each work moved seamlessly into the next, Chase explored different forms of density — of textures, of thought, of sheer sonic weight — gradually narrowing the focus from the playful 11-flute orchestra of Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” to the climactic, elemental intensity of Edgard Varese’s 1936 masterwork for solo flute, “Density 21.5.”
And through all the works — which included Marcos Balter’s dark and deeply poetic “Pessoa” for six bass flutes; Alvin Lucier’s maddening but strangely beguiling “Almost New York” for flutes and sustained sine tones (patience required); Mario Diaz de Leon’s idea-dense “Luciform” (a vibrant sort-of-sonata for flute and electronics, from 2013); and Philip Glass’s tail-chasing “Piece in the Shape of a Square” for two flutes — Chase played with the kind of vitality and directness and effortless virtuosity that you always hope to hear in the concert hall but too rarely do. All in all, an extraordinary evening from one of the brightest lights on the contemporary music scene, and a high point of the Atlas’s ongoing New Music series.
By just about any standard, Wynton Marsalis’s “Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration” is a huge work. Vast in scope and mighty in forces, it’s a journey through the history of African American music, weaving everything from New Orleans blues to hard-driving bop into a seamless whole. From a musical standpoint it’s a spectacular achievement, and the rafter-shaking, two-hour performance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, was a must-hear event for any jazz lover.
But the deeper power of “Abyssinian” may have been in the profound spirituality — and the sense of universal human connection — that seemed to run through it. Written in 2008 for Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, the work takes the loose form of a Mass, integrating sacred music (sung beautifully by the 70-member Chorale Le Chateau, under the baton of Damien Sneed) with the more secular playing of the 15-member Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
The result was something between a concert and a gospel service, a richly flavored musical epic that built to an almost ecstatic pitch. Ethereal hymns, foot-stomping blues, horns growling in Mingus-like ballads, rapturous gospel solos, a bit of free jazz, a hint of a New Orleans dirge — they all flowed together, unified by a kind of urgent, spiritual purpose. Never a mere pastiche, the freewheeling range of “Abyssinian” seemed aimed at a higher goal — and to judge by the roaring response of the audience, it achieved it.
Marsalis probably couldn’t hope for more committed performers of this work. Chorale members and instrumentalists both took frequent, virtuosic solos, and Marsalis himself played a central role throughout. But as if to underscore the universalist feeling of the work, he stayed well out of the spotlight, delivering the occasional perfectly wrought solo from his seat in the four-person trumpet section: just another member of the family of man.
Composer Steve Antosca likes to keep thing unpredictable. As the former director of the venerable Verge Ensemble and now as the head of the National Gallery of Art’s New Music Ensemble, he's brought wildly imaginative concerts — featuring everything from drum-playing robots to “echoic landscapes” created by motion-capturing devices — to Washington for more than a decade. That anything-goes spirit was alive and well Sunday night, when the New Music Ensemble mounted a high-tech — but often lyrical and gently beguiling — multimedia performance at the gallery’s East Building auditorium.
Antosca is particularly interested in the integration of computers with traditional instruments, and the evening opened with the premiere of his “my end is my beginning,” in which the playing of an acoustic ensemble (harpist Jacqueline Pollauf, saxophonist Noah Getz, pianist Laurie Hudicek and percussionist Ross Karre) is processed through computers (manned by William Brent), then broadcast through a battery of speakers around the hall. It took a few minutes for the complex textures to clarify, but the result was a shimmering, multilayered sea of sound, surging with power under a surface of delicate detail — a fascinating dance between the human players and their electronic ghosts.
Pollauf and Getz (who perform as the harp-saxophone duo Pictures on Silence) followed with a lighter but lovely piece, Andrew Earle Simpson’s “Summer-Night Songs.” A sort of pastoral nocturne, it’s full of detailed, coloristic effects that unfold as images of a summer sky flow by silently overhead, from dusk to starlight to a golden dawn. It’s atmospheric music, in every sense of the word, and a delight.
Not everything on the program worked quite as well. John Belkot’s deliberately open-ended “the woman with Renoir’s umbrella” seemed clumsy compared with the earlier works, and its accompanying black-and-white film (three versions of a boy-meets-girl story) had a sophomoric art-school feel. Miklós Maros’s “Rabescatura” (“Arabesque”) was a tour de force for solo saxophone. Getz gave it a polished performance, though the work was so clearly and solidly structured that you felt he could have loosened up a bit and injected a more spontaneous, improvisational feel.
The evening ended with a sort of musical joy ride — Fernando Benadon’s “Cotxes” (“Cars”), in which video of a drive to nowhere through the streets of Barcelona on a sunny morning is accompanied by a pleasantly flowing soundtrack, as if the radio were tuned to an upbeat “lite” modern station.
The Atlas Performing Arts Center may be a step or two off the beaten track for most concertgoers, but it’s fast becoming a key destination for anyone interested in new American music. Under the direction of Armando Bayolo, the center’s New Music Series has brought some of the country’s most inventive young performers and composers to Washington, and it continued that noble mission on Sunday with the debut of a fine new trio named Mirage, in a program of 21st-century music notable for its striking lyricism, tenderness and warmth.
“We play music that we love, by composers we believe in,” said soprano Lindsay Kesselman as the concert opened, and that affection was audible throughout the afternoon. The music ranged from quietly poignant (Robert Honstein’s luminous “We Choose to Go to the Moon,” built around President John F. Kennedy’s famous words) to operatic (“How I Hate This Room” by Lee Kesselman, tracing a woman’s descent into madness) to the dreamlike “yes I said yes I will Yes” by Amy Beth Kirsten, a colorful setting of Molly Bloom’s remembered passion in the closing soliloquy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
David Lang’s “Heroin,” for voice and cello, had a moving simplicity and directness, but not everything on the program worked quite as well. John Corigliano’s “Clothes Line” came off as an effete, through-the-lorgnette take on Bob Dylan’s lyrics, hardly an improvement on the gritty original. And Ruben Naeff’s lively “Fill the Present Day with Joy” began with an engaging idea — use lyrics taken from Facebook updates — but got a little too cutesy when the players started checking their cellphones during the performance.
The Mirage players — Nicholas Photinos on cello and Yasuko Oura on piano, as well as soprano Kesselman — played with virtuosity and conviction all afternoon, and those qualities were on full display in perhaps the most accomplished work on the program, Kaija Saariaho’s shimmering, otherworldly “Mirage” — a piece that inspired the group’s name. It’s a work of ravishing sonic beauty and imagination, rich in both complexity and poetry, and the trio gave it a vivid and completely assured reading — a memorable performance in every way.
Do you need a huge orchestra to make huge music? The answer — to judge by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra’s larger-than-life performance at George Mason University on Saturday night — is an emphatic no. Under the baton of music director Christopher Zimmerman, this orchestra has been punching well above its weight for several years now, and its season-opening concert — which paired two of Aaron Copland’s colorful “American” works with the pulse-racing fury of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony — proved to be an evening of such visceral, spectacular music-making that it won a standing ovation from the packed house.
The program opened with a light touch: a rarely heard work of Copland’s, written when the composer, still in his 20s, was living in Paris and developing the distinctly “American” style he became known for. His “Music for the Theatre” cheerfully mixes jazz with modernism and ranges from an ethereal lento to a growling burlesque straight out of a strip club. It’s a fascinating if not quite mature work — “American” music with a French accent — but great fun, with plenty of solos that gave the wind and brass players room to strut their jazzy sides.
But the evening moved to a deeper level with Copland’s later Clarinet Concerto, in a masterful and evocative performance by clarinetist Ricardo Morales. More subtle and inward-looking than the earlier work, the concerto opens quietly, with a luminous sense of awakening, before the clarinet takes wing in a virtuosic cadenza and soars into the playful, quick-witted second movement. Morales played it with elegance and impeccable style, and he followed it up with the charming “Calypso Serenade” (from Morton Gould’s “Benny’s Gig” suite) as an encore.
It was in the final half of the program, though, that the Fairfax players really came into their own. There are few works of art — maybe few human accomplishments at all — that equal the power and almost overwhelming beauty of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which builds a few simple gestures into a vast musical juggernaut. It’s an extremely difficult work to bring off, but Zimmerman used his relatively small orchestra to brilliant advantage, in a performance that revealed every detail of the music while exploding with a sense of immense scope and vast, unstoppable power.
The Verge Ensemble is among the most thoughtful of Washington’s contemporary chamber music groups, and its program at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Sunday afternoon was built on a fine premise: to explore the roots that much contemporary “serious” music has in folk, pop and even primitive music. It made for an intriguing if often low-key afternoon, a bit academic in tone (as Verge can sometimes be) but with some real gems — including a luminous account of John Cage’s “In a Landscape” and Russell Platt’s lyrical “Memoir” from 2010.
The concert (part of the museum’s excellent Steinway Series) opened with a gentle homage to the past: the beguiling “To A Wild Rose,” a 1896 work by the American romantic composer Edward MacDowell. Pianist Laurie Hudicek (a newcomer to Verge) turned in a fine if rather distant reading and was joined by flutist David Whiteside for the elegiac “In Memoriam WBW” by Elliott Schwartz, written for Whiteside’s late father. Schwartz’s music, to these ears, can sound airless and a bit pedantic, as if written in musical academese. But “Memoriam” was an evocative and quite lovely work, played by Whiteside with quiet affection.
Aaron Copland’s “Four Piano Blues” are great fun, balanced between sophistication and a kind of gentle biting wit, and Hudicek gave them a natural, straightforward reading — more cool light than burning fire. Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Four Pre-Inca Sketches” for flute and cello were colorful works built from wisps of sound and breath, and despite their often incantatory and primitive feel, the performance seemed, well, wispy and evaporated in the ears without much of a punch.
The afternoon clicked into gear when violinist Lina Bahn joined Hudicek and cellist Tobias Werner for Stacy Garrop’s “Silver Dagger” — a gorgeous and eloquent reworking of the old Appalachian folk song. Full of dark passions and slow-burning sensuality, it’s an irresistible work, and Bahn led the trio in a quietly ferocious, utterly convincing account.
The same players closed the afternoon with perhaps the most exuberant performance of the concert: Paul Schoenfield’s eclectic, uninhibited and completely delightful “Café Music.”
It’s been a good summer for anyone even remotely interested in Chinese music, with nearly a dozen performances of both traditional and contemporary works at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery. The miniseries, built around the theme of the mythological phoenix, ended this weekend with four performances of the rarely heard musical poetry theater known as kunqu, and its high point may have come on Sunday with “Dreaming of the Phoenix” — a work by the young composer Du Yun that bridged thousand-year-old traditions and modern sensibilities with deft, perceptive grace.
Kunqu is the oldest surviving form of Chinese opera, and “Dreaming” — the first part of a longer work called “Moonlight Meditation” — opened with a spare and almost ancient sense of ritual, the six white-clad musicians entering the stage one by one to a haunting melody on a bamboo flute.
In fact, the entire piece felt steeped in ritual, as if to evoke a long-vanished world. Du Yun’s delicate and ethereal score — for singer, flutes, percussion, pipa, zither and MacBook Pro — was unmistakably rooted in traditional Chinese music, and its lyrics were drawn from poetry hundreds, or even thousands, of years old. But this wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. As it evoked woodland spirits, soaring phoenixes, distant battlegrounds and delicate images of nature, the work seemed to come alive with the shimmering mystery of a half-remembered dream — a reverie of the past, in a thoroughly modern mind.
Much of the work’s impact came from its superb, virtuosic performance. Singer Qian Yi — who also wrote the story line — danced and sang with quiet eloquence at the center of the ensemble, while the composer herself manned the MacBook’s more contemporary sonics. Chen Tao turned in impeccable playing on both transverse and end-blown wooden flutes, but perhaps the finest playing came from Zhou Yi, whose solo on the pipa provided the most breathtaking moments of the afternoon.