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.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 14, 2013
Romanticism is alive and well, you may be glad to hear. At least, it was at Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda on Saturday night, when the Polish guitarist Marcin Dylla took the pulpit for an evening of unabashedly expressive music that ranged from Franz Schubert to the modern-day Magnus Lindberg. Dylla’s a world-class virtuoso — you don’t win first prize at 19 international competitions for nothing — and the evening was a riveting display of guitar technique. But it wasn’t his pinpoint accuracy that dazzled, so much as his deeply felt, almost sensual poeticism. This was playing of almost Romantic-era passion — and it was impossible not to be moved by it.
Dylla opened the concert (the last of the season for the fine Marlow Guitar Series) with the “Sonata Romantica” by Mexican composer Manuel Maria Ponce. Written in 1928, it’s an overt homage to Schubert, full of songlike passages and quiet passions: Romanticism interpreted through cooler, 20th-century ears. Dylla (whose artful stubble and just-fell-out-of-bed hair gave him a suitably Romantic look) played it with extraordinary delicacy of touch, profound concentration and, you felt, almost starry-eyed affection.
But it was “Mano a Mano” — a thoroughly modern but, in its own way, equally Romantic work from the contemporary Finnish composer Lindberg — that proved the real heart of the evening. It’s a surging, wildly colored tour de force for the guitar, and Dylla unleashed it with a rare balance of control, passion and explosive power. If there were any doubt that music of the 21st century can be as personal and deeply expressive as that of the Romantics, it ended here.
The rest of the evening was milder by comparison: a pleasant sonata by Anton Diabelli that breezed in and out of the ears without much fuss, three songs by Schubert that were as lovely as you’d expect, and, to close the evening, the “Valses Poeticos” by Enrique Granados — a work of such captivating beauty that Dylla gracefully declined to play an encore when brought back by a standing ovation. “I want these beautiful melodies of Granados,” he told the audience, “to remain for a while in your ears.”
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 12, 2013
The world of contemporary classical music has not exactly been a barrel of laughs for the past half-century. Awash in academic theorizing and po-faced, who-cares-if-you-listen complexity, composers almost seemed to turn their backs on audiences — and audiences, not surprisingly, returned the favor. But that seems to be changing. A number of younger composers, rigorously trained but wary of the ivory tower’s isolation, are bringing a welcome sense of playfulness into music, embracing an anything-goes range of styles.
That, at any rate, was the impression Thursday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center when the International Contemporary Ensemble showcased the music of Phyllis Chen and Carla Kihlstedt, two very different composer-performers whose music ran from delicate wisps of breath to foot-stomping bedlam.
Of the two, Chen is the more playful, the more quietly charming. A virtuoso of the toy piano, she delights in the delicate sonorities of music boxes and everyday objects, weaving them into strikingly original works of engaging lightness and transparency. Her soliloquy for the flute, for instance — “Beneath a Trace of Vapor,” played by Eric Lamb — is a complex sound scape built from breath, in which harmonics, overblown notes and a range of feathery sounds from the flute are deployed with precision and wild imagination. Likewise, “Hush” opened with a revolving-in-circles, Eric Satie-like simplicity but built in drive and power to become absolutely riveting.
Perhaps the most entertaining piece of the evening was “Mobius,” in which Chen randomly punched holes into a loop of paper as it was being cranked between a pair of music boxes. The paper “programmed” the music boxes to produce tones, the cranks generated mechanical ratcheting sounds, and the whole was processed through a MacBook nearby — until Chen brought the fun to a close by snipping the Mobius strip in half. Chen’s combination of playfulness, discipline and an unerring ear in mixing strange sonorities made it a captivating work. And her last piece of the evening, “Chimers” — which pits a clarinet and violin against a shimmering chorus of tuning forks — proved that Chen is a master of the art of play — serious, serious play.
Kihlstedt took center stage for the second half of the evening, leading the ensemble through her new song cycle, “At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire.” Commissioned by the ICE, it’s a theatrical, freewheeling work that leaps around the stylistic map, dipping fluently into everything from free jazz to Kurt Weil as it explores the mysteries of the unconscious mind. But it’s an easy, natural eclecticism; Kihlstedt is a seasoned musician with roots in both classical and pop, and “Night” was, to some degree, a showcase for her skills not just as a composer but as a performer as well.
Simultaneously singing and playing the violin, often launching onto one foot to get the music airborne, Kihlstedt deployed her considerable stage presence. While her voice isn’t particularly big, it has a natural charm — flavored with a hint of Bjork — and she knows how to use it. Opening with the dreamy, improvised-feeling “Factual Boy,” she led the group through nine interwoven songs built on dreams that friends had told her about. That can be a risky approach — is anything more tedious than listening to other people’s dreams? — and there were moments of spoken text that slowed the momentum to a crawl.
But Kihlstedt has a rich musical imagination, and the music had a life of its own, moving with dreamlike clarity through tender fragments of song, stomping martial tunes, hymnlike reveries and the other strange, mysterious stuff that serves as a soundtrack to our unconscious.
Composers have been smashing the boundaries between traditional Asian and contemporary Western music for years now, blending those apparently opposite worlds and producing a wealth of fascinating new music. The Korean-born composer Hi Kyung Kim is a master of the genre, and at the Freer Gallery on Sunday afternoon — joined by the Borromeo String Quartet and an unusual ensemble that uses both Korean and Western instruments — she showcased two new works that pushed both East and West into provocative new realms.
The premiere of Kim’s string quartet “Han San” opened the program. Inspired by an aerial photograph of a seaweed farm, it’s a richly colored work that leaps and tumbles along with irrepressible vitality, flavored with bent notes, frenetic tremolos and slithering glissandi, all to wonderfully expressive effect. A complex rhythmic structure — built, Kim noted, “around the breath rather than a beat” — underpinned the four-section work and gave it a sense of natural spontaneity, as if it were unfolding like some natural phenomenon. A masterful work, and the Borromeo players (reading their scores off MacBooks) navigated its complexities with easy virtuosity.
When the gifted composer Andrew Imbrie died in 2007, he left behind a detailed sketch for a clarinet quintet. Kim — a former student of Imbrie’s — decided to complete the work, and while it’s just a fragment of a single movement, it proved to have the sophisticated, approachable charm of much of Imbrie’s music. In the hands of clarinet superstar Richard Stoltzman (who joined the Borromeo for this performance), the work took on a kind of affectionate glow, full of songlike passages and delicately calibrated interplay between clarinet and strings.
But it was Kim’s “Thousand Gates” that really stole the show. Part of a planned multimedia epic, the 45-minute piece (whose title refers to the gates of heaven) mixed an anything-goes range of styles, instruments and cultural references into a joyful meditation on death and eternal life. Theatrical and often quite moving, it was also wildly uninhibited: A mournful soliloquy on a wooden Korean flute turned into a playful rendering of “You Are My Sunshine,” a Renaissance dance blossomed out of nowhere, a duet on a wood block became a titanic battle of sound. The whole thing built to an ecstatic climax that brought the audience to its feet. Spirited playing from the Ensemble Rituel (and the dancing percussionist Eun-Ha Park, in particular) made for a memorable afternoon.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 7, 2013
The Great Noise Ensemble — as you’ve no doubt picked up from the name — is one of the more playful and uninhibited classical groups in town. Specializing in music from cutting-edge young composers, the group has been putting on concerts at the Atlas Performing Arts Center this year on themes such as “irreverence” and “revolution,” and on Friday night, the performance was titled — simply but with tantalizing promise — “Revelation.”
There are plenty of ways to interpret that word, and the young Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov — who was on hand for the event — approached it by magnifying tiny, “micro” musical structures and compressing “macro” ones to make them comprehensible and reveal their deeper connections. Her “Transparent Walls” opened with a simple, hypnotic pulse in the electric piano, then grew in color and complexity as the ensemble joined in, floating through a dreamlike landscape before gathering in power and erupting into a powerful, almost warlike explosion of sound (complete with wailing siren), and fading back again into simplicity.
The engaging Washington-born composer Daniel Felsenfeld was also there, and he described his three-movement piano concerto, “The Curse of Sophistication,” as being about reinventing himself as an artist — working through what he called his “weird combination of haughtiness and self-recrimination.” As an exercise in personal self-revelation, it was fascinating. A searching, edgy piano (played with great style by Molly Orlando Palmiero) sometimes battled, sometimes embraced a seductive and often lush orchestral background, as if trying to break through to some urgent and elemental musical core.
The lavishly gifted composer Stephen Albert died some 20 years ago at the age of 51, and his “Treestone” — a song cycle built on James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”— underscores what a tragedy that was.
Written for soprano, tenor and small ensemble, it’s a gorgeous work, as chimerical and wildly colorful as Joyce’s own poetic meta-language, full of wit and stunning atmospherics and a riverine sense of flow. It’s a dauntingly complex work, but music director Armando Bayolo led the ensemble — as he did all evening — with precision, imagination and tangible electricity.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 25, 2013
The flute hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect. Sure, it has a beautiful sound, and more than a few masterpieces have been written for it. But its relatively thin palette of color — and thus of expressive possibilities — has tended to relegate it to a ghetto of light, atmospheric music, rather than the emotionally complex work where composers put their best ideas.
Over the past five or six decades, though, flutists have been fighting back, and a battery of new techniques — percussive key-clicks, multiphonics, singing into the flute — has extended the flute into intriguing realms. And to judge by a concert by Verge Ensemble flutists Carole Bean and David Whiteside on Sunday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the flute is emerging as one of the most expressive and interesting instruments in contemporary music.
The afternoon opened with Edgard Varese’s pathbreaking “Density 21.5,” a work from 1936 that uses extended techniques to evoke a stark, almost elemental power, and builds to a white-hot intensity. Whiteside’s reading of it was surprisingly tame, but he came back stronger in Andrew Rindfleisch’s 1994 “Tears,” another solo work that — as the name suggests — is an intense and highly expressive lamentation, with much musical weeping and shrieking punctuated with gasping breaths.
Things turned sunnier in the next two works. British composer Ian Clarke’s “Great Train Race” is a high-velocity tone poem (subject obvious) and a tour de force of inventive techniques. When Belarusan flutist Aleksandr Haskin played it at the Terrace Theater a couple of years ago, it nearly tore the roof off the place; Bean’s reading of it didn’t capture that explosive power, but her heartfelt reading of Clarke’s “Sunstreams” (with Jenny Lin at the piano) was a lyrical delight.
Whiteside returned for Aaron Jay Kernis’s poignant “Air,” and he and Bean took infectious pleasure in Dariusz Przybylski’s “Onyx,” whose idiomatic back-and-forth — with much fluttering and cooing — evoked birds in articulate conversation.
Unfortunately, one of the highlights of the program, Kaija Saariaho’s “Laconisme de l’aile” for flute and tape, couldn’t be performed for technical reasons. But Bean turned in a fast, furious account of Jennifer Higdon’s “rapid.fire” for solo flute, which flew by like an angry hummingbird, and was joined by Whiteside and Lin for Higdon’s “running the edgE” a dancelike work with dark sonorities and an agreeably menacing edge. The afternoon closed with Martin Bresnick’s flute concerto “Pan Penseroso” (performed here in a new version for two flutes and piano), a rich, stunningly beautiful work that seems destined to become a classic in the 21st-century flute repertoire.
By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 18, 2013
It was Washington’s good luck to have Sir James Galway in town for St. Patrick’s Day, when the renowned Irish flutist appeared at the Kennedy Center for a light but hugely entertaining concert of (mostly) Irish-themed music. From traditional folk tunes to a cheerful little jig for pennywhistle by (of all people) Henry Mancini, Galway played the charmer throughout the two-hour show, telling stories, sharing the stage with his flutist wife and a host of fine young accompanists, and displaying the astonishing virtuosity and vibrant tone that even now, at 73, he shows little sign of losing.
The afternoon was billed as Galway’s “Legacy Tour,” and given his rather robust self-regard (on his Web site, he calls himself “the supreme interpreter of the classical flute repertoire” and — oh, dear — “a legend”) you might have expected a program of important masterworks. But “legacy,” he explained, referred to music he had cherished all his life, works with a personal and even sentimental value.
There was some early Mozart (the lovely Quartet for Flute and Strings No. 1 in D, K. 285, given a spirited and affectionate reading) and a couple of splashy show-off pieces (including Francois Borne’s “Fantaisie Brillante [On Themes from Georges Bizet’s Carmen]”) that he tossed off with wit and almost casual virtuosity. Debussy’s ephemeral “Clair de Lune” was the only clunker of the concert — an oddly earthbound reading so sodden with vibrato it felt like a heap of wet laundry — but it was quickly redeemed by a pair of light-as-air dances from the baroque composers Marin Marais and Francois-Joseph Gossec.
The real heart of the afternoon, though, was in its second half, when Galway began to explore, in a personal and authentic way, his Irish roots. The centerpiece was a fantasy titled “In Ireland” by the early-20th-century composer Hamilton Harty, and Galway seemed to come completely into his own as he played this ravishing work — a genuinely heartfelt performance that alone was worth the price of admission.
A few Irish folk songs followed, including the poignant “She Moved Through the Fair,” before Galway moved back to lighter ground with the lively “Irlandaise” (from Claude Bolling’s “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano”) and a pair of charming, Irish-flavored works by Henry Mancini — with Galway drawing the audience in for a raucous, full-throated reading of “Baby Elephant Walk.”