By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 15, 2013
There was something of a reunion for alumni of the Curtis Institute of Music on Thursday night, when violinist Jennifer Koh (class of 2002) and her former teacher Jaime Laredo (’59) teamed up at the Terrace Theater with the Curtis Chamber Orchestra (under the baton of Curtis fellow Vinay Parameswaran) for a program that included a new work by — does it even need to be said? — a composer on the Curtis faculty.
That made for an intriguing musical “conversation” among generations — and particularly between Koh and Laredo, two distinctive personalities who played against — and with — each other all evening, in four mostly-contemporary concertos for two violins. Opening with Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor, BWV 1043, the two displayed deep sympathy and deeply contrasting individuality, with Laredo’s lean, almost astringent sound virtually gleaming against the warmer and more sensual tone that Koh drew from her instrument. The interpretations, too, seemed to crackle with that vibrant, yin-yang electricity between equal and deeply connected poles: detachment and passion, masculinity and femininity, age and youth.
That remarkable opening, however, was followed by Philip Glass’s “Echorus.” To some ears, Glass’s music rings with luminous, mesmerizing beauty; to others, it’s toothless, repetitive mush, best suited to slow-moving minds. Even Koh and Laredo couldn’t rouse it to anything resembling life. David Ludwig, though, seems to have more going on upstairs. The Curtis composer’s four-movement “Seasons Lost” is a sort of global-warming-era take on Vivaldi’s iconic masterpiece, a wistful look at how the seasons are slowly losing their identity. Ludwig has no shortage of interesting ideas — and a fine talent for evoking a sense of memory and mystery — and “Seasons” proved a worthwhile listen.
But the most captivating new work of the evening may have been Anna Clyne’s “Prince of Clouds.” Like Ludwig, Clyne writes in an accessible, fairly conventional musical language but brings to it a natural, almost casual virtuosity of expression. Played ferociously by the entire ensemble, “Prince” had a rich, robust sweep to it that was exhilarating from beginning to end.
A glowing performance of Tchaikovsky’s lovely Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48, closed the evening and was played with great elegance and style — as they had all night — by the young musicians of the Curtis Chamber Orchestra.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 13, 2013
Never mind the title: There’s been plenty of fire in the Kennedy Center’s “Nordic Cool” series this past month. But it’s been a particularly Scandinavian kind of fire — calm on the surface, explosive underneath — and on Tuesday night at the Terrace Theater the young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen showed just how searing “cool power” can really be.
The evening was steeped in the classical tradition, with two works by Mozart bookending largely neoclassical works by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and the Dane Carl Nielsen. Mozart’s stately Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394, opened the concert, and it was quickly apparent that Pohjonen has both impeccable technique and a cleareyed approach to music, unleashing the fugue with stunning clarity and precise dynamic control, if also a certain formality and distance. Cool, yes; clinical, maybe a bit; but powerful, absolutely.
Grieg’s “From Holberg’s Time” Op. 40 followed — a pleasant suite built on 18th-century dance movements, with an agreeable sense of nostalgia but not much else. Far more interesting was Nielsen’s 1917 Chaconne, Op. 32, also steeped in classical traditions but with a much sharper bite than the Grieg. Pohjonen seemed to warm up and become freer as he played, even bringing a welcome touch of madness to the manic, discordant, and fantastically exciting climax.
Mozart’s dark Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, closed the program, and Pohjonen seemed to find a kind of serenity in the melancholy drama that runs through the work. But it was Grieg’s Ballade in G Minor, Op. 24, that formed the real heart of the evening. This is a dark, confessional work from 1876 that seems to swarm with Grieg’s personal demons, and Pohjonen dived into it with complete confidence, a superb performance of a subtle and complex work.
There are so many terrific young string quartets around these days that it’s hard to leave the house without tripping over one. But the Indiana-based Pacifica Quartet has been garnering particular praise lately for its performances of the complete quartets of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Elliott Carter, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the Kreeger Museum was packed Saturday night with alert and slightly quivering ears, eager to hear what these intriguing players could do.
The evening opened (as quartet recitals seem to do now, with mind-meld regularity) with Haydn. It was a good choice. The Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4, is one of those classically ideal works that marries subtle emotional depths with flawless construction, laced through with that sly, mischievous wit that makes Haydn so irresistible. The Pacifica gave it a fine if rather measured reading — more tea-and-crumpets than edge-of-seat excitement — that displayed its superb technique and thoughtful phrasing, but didn’t exactly unleash pandemonium.
But the next work was another story. Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 2 in A, Op. 68, was written in 1944, and is steeped not only in Jewish traditional music but also in the composer’s anguish over the Jewish wartime tragedy. It’s a dense, gripping work, with constantly interweaving currents of disquiet, optimism, despair and determination, and the Pacifica gave it a profoundly moving reading, with lead violinist Simin Ganatra a particular standout.
Maurice Ravel’s Quartet in F must be one of the most beguiling quartets in the entire repertoire — it seems to blow weightlessly through the imagination, like an avalanche of butterflies. It sounds best when utterly effortless, though, and if you were a quibbling sort of person you might have asked for more delicacy in the Pacifica’s reading. But these are full-bodied players, and they showed that, for all its elegant luminosity and subtle washes of color, real blood flows in the veins of Ravel’s masterpiece; by the end, it had become a deeply satisfying performance in every way.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 3, 2013
Where would American music be without — of all people — Antonin Dvorak? The Czech composer spent only three brief years here, but after arriving in New York in 1892 he threw himself into the indigenous (and largely ignored) music he found, incorporating everything from African-American spirituals to Native American dances into his own music. By the time he returned to Europe, Dvorak had written a string of iconic works, from the “New World” symphony to the American String Quartet — and carved out a new and profoundly “American” musical language that changed the musical landscape of the time.
That unlikely episode in music history has been the subject of “Dvorak and America,” a multi-event festival mounted last week by the PostClassical Ensemble. The group has made a specialty of presenting neglected music in fresh contexts and striking new presentations, and the festival’s closing concert — presented Friday in the University of Maryland’s Dekelboum Concert Hall — stayed true to form, probing the nature of Dvorak’s “Americanism” and unveiling a new work that partly fulfilled an unfinished ambition of Dvorak himself.
The evening started with the “Serenade for Strings” from 1875. Written years before Dvorak came to America, it’s an elegant, lovely work awash in Czech folk melodies, and it’s refined enough for even the most delicate European ears. But when the ensemble then turned to the 1895 “American Suite,” it wasn’t as if a breath of fresh of air had swept into the hall — it was more like a bracing gale. Exuberant, unfettered, almost cinematic in its rich colors and heady sweep of ideas, the work seemed to explode with vitality and a sense of freedom and infinite possibility. Much of that was due to superb playing by the ensemble itself — led with fluidity and precision by music director Angel Gil-Ordonez — but the music itself proved that Dvorak was no mere borrower of indigenous melodies: He had grasped the frontier mentality of America itself.
The real focus of the evening, though, was the premiere of a bold new work called “Hiawatha Melodrama,” put together by music historian Michael Beckerman and PostClassical artistic director Joseph Horowitz. Combining music from the “New World” symphony, the “American Suite” and the Violin Sonatina with a truncated version of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” it suggests what Dvorak might have written if he’d completed a planned vocal work based on the epic poem. The work had its moments: musically seamless, it built to a stirring climax and showcased Dvorak’s extraordinary gift for tone-painting. But Longfellow’s poem — a best-seller in its day — has not, in all honesty, aged very well. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas did what he could with its relentless trochees and the begging-for-parody, Gitche Gumee lingo. But by the end, it was hard not to think that Dvorak’s music stood better on its own.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 22, 2013
As a little girl, Kaija Saariaho often heard music as she was falling asleep — so she asked her mother if she could have a quieter pillow. The sounds, of course, were in her imagination, and in the intervening decades the Finnish composer went on to write music that seems to drift in gently from the unconscious, with the strange and otherworldly beauty of a dream. But it’s not just atmospherics; Saariaho herself was at the Phillips Collection on Thursday night for a performance of her music by members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, and it was clear by the end that there are few living composers with such subtle insight into the human psyche.
The evening turned out to be largely about love. In “Lonh,” a work for soprano and electronics from 1996, Saariaho combined a medieval love poem (beautifully sung by Jacqueline Woodley in the ancient Occitan language) with an electronic score that manipulated bells and bird song to evoke a distant and almost luminous landscape. “Quatre Instants” for soprano and piano was more urgent and compelling — an “emotional journey,” as the composer put it, through the bliss and terrors of love, from the poignant “Longing” to the anguished cri de coeur of “Torment.”
The pianist Emanuel Ax commissioned Saariaho in 2005 to write a piece for him that would have, as she put it, “not a tune, exactly, but a strong sense of melody.” The result is the engaging “Ballade,” a sort of hyper-sophisticated Nordic blues full of sweeping gestures and moody near-melodies, which received a rich, flavorful reading from pianist Elizabeth Upchurch. But the most gripping music of the evening may have been the duet from “Grammaire des Reves” — based on texts by Sylvia Plath — that explored the sometimes-warring, sometimes-integrated sides of the unconscious. Soprano Mireille Asselin and the mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb turned in a spectacular performance as two halves of the same whole, balancing tension and synergy as they clutched at each other and drifted apart throughout the work.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 18, 2013
Where would contemporary guitar music be without Brazil? Over the past hundred years, composers from Heitor Villa-Lobos to Sergio Assad have pushed the guitar into colorful, wildly imaginative new sound-worlds, and on Saturday night the Brazilian guitarist João Paulo Figueirôa explored some of that intriguing repertoire at Westmoreland Congregational Church, as part of the always-interesting Marlow Guitar Series.
The evening got off to a shallow start — an instantly forgettable bit of fluff by the 19th-century guitarist J. Kaspar Mertz — but quickly entered deeper waters. Bach’s spare-but-majestic Lute Suite in G Minor, BWV 995, is one of the great works of the repertoire, and Figueirôa approached it with respect — perhaps even to a fault. He seemed most at home in the slow movements and found much subtle beauty there, but overall it was a rather polite, distant performance, never generating the power that builds throughout the work and gives it its profound, unstoppable momentum. Figueirôa seemed to be a gentle poet of the guitar — quietly introspective, musically soft-spoken, and not out to ruffle any ears.
But in the second half of the program — which was dedicated to the music of Brazilian composers — he began to come alive. Two works by Egberto Gismonti (the wistful ballad “Água e Vinho” and the mile-a-minute “Loro”) let Figueirôa visibly relax, and he tossed off Gismonti’s jazz-inflected melodies with obvious pleasure. Villa-Lobos’s “Mazurka-Choro” got a sharp-edged reading, and things turned even more interesting in the dark, unsettling “Etude No. 12.” Figueirôa dug into it with a kind of tough-minded intensity he hadn’t shown in the earlier works, as if he’d suddenly caught on fire.
It was Assad’s “Aquarelle,” though, that really stole the show. It’s a tour-de-force for guitar with an improvisational, almost whimsical feel, full of quicksilver twists and turns and delicate shades of color. Figueirôa gave it a lively and imaginative reading, and it was clear he was in his element. As an ambassador of Brazilian music, this is a guitarist worth hearing.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 11, 2013
It’s probably a good idea to get out of Marouan Benabdallah’s way when he sits down to play Bartok. The young Moroccan pianist has a powerful, even ferocious technique, and — as he proved at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon — takes an almost palpable joy in the driving rhythms and biting, aggressive harmonies of Bartok’s music. The whole first half of the program, in fact, was devoted to the Hungarian composer, from five of the edgy-but-beguiling “Mikrokosmos” etudes (played with incisiveness and color to spare) and the early Elegy, Op.8b, No. 2 (lush to an almost Lisztian degree), to the jaunty, anything-goes Scherzo from the youthful “Four Piano Pieces” — all brought off with a kind of exuberant wildness and virtually perfect control.
Benabdallah’s mother is Hungarian, which perhaps accounts for some of his his natural way with Bartok. But he proved equally adept at the far different music of Debussy, retracting his claws to bring a lighter (if distinctly dry-eyed) touch to three of the “Images” from 1907. These works — particularly the shimmering “Poissons d’or” — are often played for their impressionistic, atmospheric effects, but Benabdallah managed to bring out their delicate poetry while keeping everything in sharp focus.
Two short sonatas rounded out the afternoon: the robust and engagingly lyrical “Sonata Breve” by the contemporary Argentinian composer Maximo Flugelman and Scriabin’s two-movement Sonata in F-sharp Major, Op.30, No.4, from 1903. Depending on the bent of your ears, Scriabin was either a mystical genius or a tedious blowhard (the jury may be forever out), but Benabdallah’s incisive, finely drawn approach made the work bearable even to skeptics.
Part of what made the afternoon so enjoyable, it should briefly be noted, was a new configuration of the Phillips’s venerable Music Room. It has never been an ideal place for chamber music, with the “stage” area divided from the audience by columns that form a sort of psychological barrier. But Benabdallah played in the main part of the room, with the audience in a semicircle around him, creating a more intimate, relaxed and pleasantly communal experience. Audience reaction seemed very positive; this vote, for one, goes for making the new setup permanent.