We tend to be a little buttoned down here in Washington — our suit-to-hipster ratio is a zillion to one, at last count — so outsiders are sometimes surprised to find that the District has one of the most interesting and adventurous contemporary music scenes on the East Coast. Part of the credit goes to the Great Noise Ensemble, a virtuosic outfit that — in a must-hear series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center over the past year — has showcased more than a dozen rising young American composers and revealed some spectacular talent.
That talent was amply on display at the series’s closing concert Friday night. Shawn Jaeger’s “Poor and Wretched,” which opened the program, was inspired by an arcane form of hymn singing, used by Appalachian Baptist congregations, in which the chorus freely echoes a leader rather than precisely following a score. “I wanted to capture the complexity, rawness and honesty” of that music, Jaeger told the audience.
“Poor” proved to be a luminous piece that treated the instrumental ensemble much like a chorus, united in a loosely flowing, soft-edged sort of hymn, full of the natural inflections and patterns of human speech. There may have been more calculated inexactness to the music than raw spontaneity, and it never quite captured the ecstatic quality of the original singing. But the work’s warmth and quiet beauty were often deeply moving.
It’s just a coincidence — a happy one — that the new “Great Gatsby” film has appeared at the same time as “Letters From Zelda,” in which Sean Doyle sets to music the letters written to F. Scott Fitzgerald by his wife. Penned by a woman who was extraordinary in every way, Zelda’s letters range from her love-struck days in the 1920s to her final years in a sanatorium two decades later, suffering from bipolar disorder. It’s rich material, and Doyle’s vivid, eventful score captured the intensity and hyper-articulate confusion that run through the letters — the music of a poetic mind slowly falling apart. Brilliantly written, full of the anything-goes spirit of the Jazz Age, “Letters” captured the shimmering highs and bleak lows of Zelda’s life, and soprano Lisa Perry (valiantly holding her own over a large and exuberant ensemble) brought a fine, delicately unhinged edge to the music.
Daniel Felsenfeld calls his “Revolutions of Ruin” a kind of “road oratorio” about adolescence and the path to adulthood. It’s a journey we’ve all made, and Felsenfeld taps into the intensity, anguish, self-absorption and inner turmoil we endure in forging our identities. But “Revolutions” isn’t some pat coming-of-age story — it resolves not into self-knowledge but into a full-fledged adolescent power fantasy, awash in apocalyptic blood lust (towns burn, heads are dashed, the rich are torn limb from limb) and a kind of glorious solipsism. The fine baritone Joshua Brown joined Perry for the lead roles in this remarkable (and musically gorgeous) epic, with support from the HexaCollective vocal ensemble.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 6, 2013
Since founding the a cappella group Pomerium some 40 years ago, Alexander Blachly has made it a driving force for performances of Renaissance polyphony — and for innovative, hands-on scholarship as well. Lately, Blachly has been exploring music from the short but action-packed reign of Mary Tudor — who ruled England from 1553 to 1558 — and on Sunday afternoon, Pomerium brought the results to the Phillips Collection for a performance as intriguing as it was beautiful.
Mary, you may recall, briefly restored Catholicism to England, and it was no picnic — her suppression of Protestants won her the sobriquet “Bloody Mary.” But a happier result was the flowering of some of the most remarkable music of the time.
English composers were encouraged to write complex polyphony based on Gregorian chant, which was associated with Catholicism and thus banned under Mary’s predecessors. Using the chains of long, equal notes that are characteristic of chant as a base, these composers wove them into musical tapestries of astonishing ingenuity and depth, and created what may be Mary’s most enduring legacy.
Even to these decidedly secular ears, it was a profound pleasure to bask in Sunday’s performance. Pomerium takes a pure, historically informed approach, and its razor-sharp ensemble work made the intricate polyphony virtually translucent.
But there was more to the afternoon than scholarship and fine technique. Alternating works by Christopher Tye, William Byrd, John Sheppard, Thomas Tallis and Robert White, Blachly led his 10 singers through an hour of music that was sublime. There was a sense of unbounded vastness and luminous beauty in virtually every work, a kind of magnificent unstoppable power that soared above human trivialities.
In our navel-gazing, self-absorbed age, it seemed nothing less than exalting. By the end of Tallis’s magnificent “Agnus Dei, Missa Puer natus est,” you had the sense that the Phillips Collection’s music room had been transformed, if just for an hour, into a vast cathedral, awash in celestial light.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 5, 2013
The Carducci String Quartet is a fine young Anglo-Irish ensemble, much praised for its interpretations of contemporary music. It’s also, curiously enough, made up of two married couples — prompting the inquiring mind to wonder how marital dynamics affect the music. What happens when conjugal spats break out — are ill-considered eighth-notes hurled angrily across the room? What if one spouse is giving the other the silent treatment? And, after a fight, should we avert our eyes for the inevitable makeup duet?
Well, probably none of our business. Suffice it to say that, in their appearance at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon (courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society), the Carducci players displayed a deep and almost familial sense of unity in everything they played. The program was strictly mainstream — Haydn, Beethoven and that newfangled Dvorak fellow — and the playing was much the same, erring perhaps on the side of caution but full of life and vitality nonetheless.
Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3, got the afternoon rolling and proved a good fit for the Carducci. Haydn’s quartets often come off best when not polished to glossy perfection (humor and rough edges go well together, after all) and the ensemble dug into the work with a likable directness and down-to-earth, relaxed enthusiasm. There were moments — as in the soggy Menuet — when you wished they’d stop being so polite and land a few punches, but first violinist Matthew Denton injected personality and great charm to the proceedings, leaving little to quibble about.
Dvorak’s summery, light-filled Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, the “American,” is famous for its quoting of a scarlet tanager (or “this damned bird,” as the composer called it) that had nested right outside his window. But it’s also a masterful rendering of that elusive thing called the “American spirit,” and the Carducci brought out the quiet confidence and late-19th-century optimism that run through the work. The extravagantly beautiful Lento, awash in luminous melancholy, was a particular joy.
A wobbly and insecure opening threatened to derail Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, but the ensemble pulled together for the work’s central, hymn-like Adagio. Subtitled “A Sacred Song of Thanks From One Made Well, to the Divine,” it was written after Beethoven recovered from a serious illness, and it contains some of the most profound and personal music he ever wrote. The Carducci brought it off with deep, simmering power, and the lilting rapture of the final Allegro appassionato made a fine close to the afternoon.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 5, 2013
oungsters, pull up your chairs. Way, way back in the 1960s, when serialism ruled the Earth and composers subjected audiences to the most angular, rebarbative music they could devise, along came a man — a simple, honest man — named George Crumb. With his warm and darkly poetic scores, full of exotic tonalities and birdlike warblings, Crumb appeared less a composer than a sort of conjurer, and — in an era when Milton Babbitt famously Didn’t Care If You Listened — seemed to reach out, wrap an arm around his listeners and nuzzle them on the ears.
Crumb’s music has lost little of its evocative magic, to judge by a performance at the Library of Congress on Friday night. The Orchestra 2001 ensemble has made a specialty of Crumb, and on Friday it was joined by none other than the composer’s daughter, the soprano Ann Crumb, for probably-definitive accounts of the 1969 classic “Night of the Four Moons” and the new “Voices From the Heartland.” Both evoked the sense of mystery and distant enchantment that makes Crumb’s music so compelling, and “Night” in particular — with its moonlit colors and dreamlike theatricality, its whispers and sudden cries — made you feel as if you’d stumbled into some ancient ritual. Ann Crumb clearly has this music in her bones; it would be hard to imagine a more natural and compelling performance.
The main draw of the program, though, was “Voices.” The final installment of a huge American Songbook project Crumb has been writing for the past decade, it resets traditional hymns, Native American chants, spirituals and folk songs for amplified soprano and baritone (the very fine Patrick Mason), accompanied by piano and a vast arsenal of percussion instruments. The stage was groaning with them, in fact: drums and gongs of every description, chimes, bells, tablas, even bits of rock, combined in wildly imaginative variations (a siren accompanies the 19th-century hymn “Softly and Tenderly,” to give just one example). Nine very distinctive songs made up the work, from a wild “Lord, Let Me Fly” to a Pawnee ghost dance that sounded almost apocalyptic. A fine, fascinating addition to American music.
While it was a rare pleasure to hear so much Crumb in one sitting, some of the most thought-provoking music of the evening came from the lesser-known composer Chaya Czernowin, whose “Lakes” received its world premiere. The second section of a triptych titled “Slow Summer Stay,” it’s a spare and quietly beguiling meditation on stillness, weaving sustained tones, delicate filigrees of sound, deft silences and sudden bursts of ferocity into a gossamer tissue. It wasn’t descriptive, exactly — certainly not “La Mer” writ small — but there was a great sense of naturalness and purity about it, as if it were unfolding far from human ears. And as it shifted delicately from sound into silence and back again, it seemed to blur the edges between nothingness and “something-ness” — and find some elusive unity between the two.
It’s tough being a composer in the 21st century. How do you satisfy those omnivorous modern ears out there, those audiences at home with everything from Monteverdi to Willie Nelson to Tuvan throat-singing? Ask Stanley Silverman. He’s nothing if not wide-ranging — the guy once brought Pierre Boulez to a party thrown by Paul Simon -- and his wildly eclectic Piano Trio No. 2 was the centerpiece of a concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Monday night by the illustrious Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio.
The KLR players are superstars of the chamber music world, and from the first notes of the evening it was clear why. Opening with Beethoven’s not-too-serious Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, Op. 11 — an entertaining work whose main claim to fame is its variations on a popular song of the time — the trio gave it a rich and comfortably unbuttoned reading, a little ragged around the edges here and there (pianist Joseph Kalichstein seemed to have just taken his fingers out of the fridge) but full of vitality and playful humor.
But the Beethoven was merely a prelude to Silverman’s work, which received its Washington premiere. The Piano Trio No. 2, “Reveille,” caroms freely among styles: A spiky modernist opening softens into an ethereal melody, which warps into a sensuous Cuban Guajira, which transforms into a classical fugue while Renaissance dances drift hither and yon, until the whole thing bursts into an anything-goes riff on Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” It’s sort of a hot mess — Silverman himself says the piece “is not intended to ‘hang together’ any more than life itself,” and, fair enough, it doesn’t. But imaginative writing, a complete lack of stuffiness and a hugely enthusiastic reading by the KLR players (for whom it was written) made up for the kitchen-sink feeling, and it proved to be an engaging — if sometimes head-scratching — listen.
As for Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8, which closed the program, there is only one thing to say: If you missed this performance, you should regret it bitterly for the rest of your life. It’s a ravishing work, an epic masterpiece by the young and unfathomably mature Brahms (he was 20 when he wrote it), and it would be hard to imagine a more passionate, perfectly controlled and absolutely radiant reading than it received from the KLR players.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 19, 2013
The Library of Congress is known for its provocative concert series, but Thursday night’s performance by the Keller String Quartet — a world-class outfit from Hungary with a gorgeous, hall-filling sound — may have been one of the most intriguing of the season. Focusing on three monumental but intensely personal Russian quartets, the Keller showed just how intimately entwined the pieces were with one another, and with the vast cultural consciousness they share. But this wasn’t some academic exercise in music history — it seemed to throw open a window into the composing mind itself.
The evening opened boldly with the strange and almost hallucinatory String Quartet No. 3 by Alfred Schnittke. German-born but Russian to his bones, Schnittke delighted in laying bare his musical roots, drawing freely on other composers in his own protean and fiercely original work. And true to form, the quartet’s opening eight bars contain no less than a quote from a Stabat Mater by Lassus, the theme from Beethoven’s monumental Grosse Fuge Op. 133 and the four notes that Shostakovich used as a musical “signature” in his own works — all of which crash and slide and transform into each other with passionate imagination over the next 20 minutes. That may sound gimmicky, but there’s nothing superficial in Schnittke’s quartet, no hint of cheap pastiche: It’s an exploration of musical identity and a work of exhilarating depth and power.
Part of that power came from the Keller players themselves, who brought such intensity to the work that it prompted a standing ovation. They followed with an equally weighty work, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110. One of the most personal, pathos-filled and impossible-to-forget works of the 20th century, it’s a masterpiece of anguish, terror (a barely suppressed shriek seems to run through it) and, ultimately, hope. It needs a delicate balance of compassion and feral bite to make it work, and the Keller brought it off to snarling perfection.
As if to counterbalance all that 20th-century angst, the evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s sweeping Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 11. It’s a heart-gladdening thing, full of soaring lyricism and ecstatic triumph, with barely a cloud as far as the eye can see. But far from just contrasting with the Schnittke and the Shostakovich, it seemed to deepen their meaning and complete some complex whole — and brought the evening to a satisfying close.
Finally, may we offer quick praise to the unsung author of the evening’s program notes? These are generally a chore to read, padded with Historic Facts About the Composer, venues the performers have previously played and dullish thumb-twiddling on sonata form. But David Plylar, a music specialist at the Library, writes with refreshing thoughtfulness and insight — a real contribution to the concert experience.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 15, 2013
Love him or hate him, Maurizio Pollini has been one of the defining — and most polarizing — pianists of the last 50 years. His razor-sharp technique and modern, cooly intellectual approach to music have won legions of admirers, while his detractors hear austerity and a sort of bloodless, clinical detachment. But Pollini’s mastery of the keyboard is beyond reproach, and it was little wonder that the Music Center at Strathmore was packed Sunday afternoon for a program of Chopin and Debussy that — though it may not have converted agnostics — showed the 71-year-old Pollini is still provocative, still polarizing and still very much a force to be reckoned with.
The first half of the afternoon was devoted to Chopin, a thoughtfully balanced mix that included the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, the second and third Ballades, the Four Mazurkas, Op. 33 and the Scherzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 33. And, as expected, Pollini approached them with clear-eyed intelligence and an almost tangible sense of purpose, paring the music to its essentials with clarity and precise, microscopically calibrated detail.
Some of the works responded to this treatment better than others (the concluding scherzo, in particular, was a fiery delight) and it was impossible not to be impressed. But it seemed equally difficult, in all frankness, to be genuinely moved. Despite the pearly tone and impeccable technique, there was little sense of spontaneity or warmth, no mystery and only the faintest impression of personal involvement. It felt as if Pollini were skillfully revealing each subtle layer of Chopin’s music — and then missing the beating heart at its core.
But any sense of disappointment was dramatically dispelled in the second half of the program. The first book of Debussy’s “Preludes” are among the most chimerical, delicately shaded works in the piano literature, and it was an open question whether they would wilt in Pollini’s steely grip. In fact, they blossomed. His phrasing, unforgiving in the Chopin, loosened and became far more supple and spontaneous, and he brought such vivid detail and imagination to the “Preludes” — from the subtle play of light and shadow in “Voiles” to the gentle lyricism of “La fille aux cheveux de lin” — that they seemed to burst uncannily into life. Even the most die-hard Pollini skeptic would have left impressed.