Hoerr and Sigfridsson Duo at the National Gallery of Art

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • June 10, 2013

The German cellist Peter Hoerr has no lack of subtle, interesting ideas, but he had two big hurdles to overcome at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday night. One was the notorious acoustics of the West Garden Court, which tend to swamp gentler-voiced instruments in a sea of reverberation. The other was the cellist’s partner for the evening, the Finnish pianist Henri Sigfridsson — whose driving, full-speed-ahead approach often seemed to leave the more introspective Hoerr hanging on for dear life.

It made, at times, for a disconcerting evening. Listening to two players as accomplished as these should be one of music’s great pleasures — a dialogue between distinctive, finely tuned musical minds that brings out the best in both. And the program — a Classical-era mix of Beethoven, Mozart and Jean-Louis Duport — was varied enough to let the two cut loose and just play.

But from the opening notes of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in F, Op. 5, No. 1, Hoerr and Sigfridsson seemed not to be quite on the same page. As the cellist unhurriedly explored the introduction, letting the music blossom and gently gather steam, Sigfridsson seemed eager to shift the work into high gear. Loud, fast and determined, the pianist steamrolled over the cellist’s quiet phrasing, and as Hoerr fought to hold his own, his tone became rougher and strident — a pattern that continued for much of the evening.

That said, there was no lack of excitement in the playing. The program, which included Beethoven’s “Twelve Variations” in F Major, Op. 66, Mozart’s “Nine Variations on a Minuet,” K. 573 and Duport’s rarely heard “Nocturne” in B-flat, gave both players room to display their virtuosity, and the climax came with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A Major, Op. 69 — a ravishing work, which received a strong and heartfelt performance. But to these ears, it was the encore — one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” — that showed Hoerr and Sigfridsson at their best, so in tune with each other that, for the first time all evening, they seemed to be playing as one.

Posted on Friday, June 14, 2013 at 07:17AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Pulse Chamber Music at Church of the Epiphany

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 30, 2013

WWith its series of concerts every Tuesday at noon, the Church of the Epiphany, at 13th and G Streets NW, serves up what may be the best lunchtime bargain in town: Enjoy an hour of superb music, and pay what you like. This week’s concert featured a fine young piano, clarinet and violin trio, Pulse Chamber Music, in a mostly lighthearted program that showcased two new works from contemporary American composers.

Thomas SleeperCommissioning new music, pianist Marina Radiushina told the audience, is one of the ensemble’s key aims, and the program opened with the delightful “Semi-Suite,” written for the group by the Miami-based composer Thomas Sleeper. Despite his name, there’s nothing somnolent about Sleeper’s music — the suite proved to be a well-caffeinated collection of alert little dance movements, full of surprising twists and intricate ideas. Bringing a distinctly modern language to a baroque-era form, Sleeper balanced the best of both eras, keeping a deft touch throughout the five concise, quick-witted movements. The trio played it with confidence and razor-edged clarity — no easy task, given the church’s daunting acoustics.

Aram Khachaturian’s 1932 “Trio” is an early work from the composer’s student days, but it’s a rich and deeply engaging masterpiece nonetheless, steeped in the biting folk melodies of his native Armenia. Clarinetist Margaret Donaghue Flavin, trading lines with violinist Scott Flavin, brought a dark, emotionally complex edge to this often-melancholy work, whose dissonances and rhythms sometimes seem to be fighting each other. It’s not an easy piece to bring off, but Pulse played it with such intelligence and naturalness that it seemed virtually spontaneous.

The afternoon closed with the colorful “Jobs” by Dave Rimelis. It’s a series of four musical “portraits” that portray a plumber with a leaky pipe, a photographer catching an elusive moment, an elevator operator stuck between floors and a street vendor in the city, all done in the kind of playful spirit found in French music of the 1930s. The Pulse players gave it a warm and affectionate reading, and when brought back for an encore, played an elegant arrangement of the second of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano.

Posted on Saturday, June 1, 2013 at 08:43AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Jennifer Koh at the Atlas

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 24, 2013

If the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium is the revered dowager of Washington’s chamber music scene, then the Atlas Performing Arts Center — in the heart of the hipster H Street corridor — must be its sexy granddaughter with the tattoos. Maybe that’s why it was picked for Thursday night’s edgy, high-intensity program by violinist Jennifer Koh, the second in this week’s Library-sponsored concerts featuring the music of West Coast composer John Adams.

When Koh was in town a couple of months ago, she brought her near-flawless technique to an orchestral performance with players from the Curtis Institute. But Thursday’s concert (with Reiko Uchida at the piano) was a far more intimate encounter, built around particularly intense — and often white-hot — works from the past hundred years. Koh played with eloquent intensity all evening, opening boldly with Leos Janacek’s “Sonata” — a work written during World War I and so steeped in bleak foreboding that even its tender ballade seethes with anguish. Koh turned in a detailed, often severe reading with a delicately brutal edge, and seemed to set in motion a powerful momentum — both musical and emotional — that carried throughout the evening.

Written in 2002 for solo violin, “Lachen verlernt” (“Laughing unlearnt”) by Esa-Pekka Salonen is a brilliant tour de force, building from a tranquil melody to an exhilarating whirlwind of sound, and Koh turned in a bravura performance, equal parts intelligence, fiery virtuosity and mischievous smiles. Schubert’s charming Sonata in A, D. 574, Op. 162 followed as a respite (think dappled sunlight and frolicking little lambs), and a chance for Koh to marshal her forces for Bela Bartok’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin — another wartime piece.

Bartok was wasting away from illness when he wrote this work, but you’d never know it from the raw intensity of the thing. It’s a masterpiece of counterpoint — at its heart is a crazily difficult fugue full of rapid-fire leaps of register, double- and triple-stops, and subtle shifts of emphasis — but more than that it’s a cri de coeur of almost overwhelming emotional depth. And from both a technical standpoint (the range of violin colors she commands is astounding) and an interpretive one, Koh played it with absolute commitment — an unforgettable performance full of fire and penetrating insight.

But the most purely enjoyable work on the program may have been Adams’s “Road Movies,” a work that the composer himself introduced as a celebration of “that great American institution of driving.” And, yes — we do love hurtling down the highway with the top down and the wind in our hair, scattering pedestrians as we fly into the future, and “Road” beautifully captures that heady excitement of freedom and infinite possibility. With Uchida laying down a groove on the piano, Koh surfed rambunctiously over the driving rhythms — an all-too-short ride in a very fast machine.


Posted on Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 03:55PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Alexandria Symphony Orchestra at the National Gallery of Art

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 20, 2013

May 29 marks the 100th anniversary of the scandalous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” --  when a near-riot broke out in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées -- and performances of this still-spectacular work are being staged all over the world this month.  One of the most striking may have been Sunday evening’s performance by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, in the Atrium of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. With its slashing angles, kinetic spaces and eruptive heights, the Atrium echoes the Rite’s own brash and fearless modernism — and from that perspective, at least, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting. 

“Echo,” though, is the operative word here, and the merciless acoustics of the huge Atrium presented a constant challenge to conductor Kim Allen Kluge. Opening with Rimsky-Korsakov’s picturesque “Scheherazade,” Kluge drew a sensuous, evocative performance from the Alexandria players, but between the endless reverberations and the low ambient rumble of the place, the music often sounded as if it were coming through the PA system at Union Station. Delicate lines were swallowed in the immensity, crisp gestures became muddy with echo, and a squalling infant in the opening section (parents: please turn off these devices before the performance!) suggested that concert halls do, in the end, have certain advantages.

But if Scheherazade’s subtleties suffered, the “Rite” positively thrived. This is elemental, even savage music, a ballet in which a pagan dancer dances herself to death, and the Atrium seemed to magnify Stravinsky’s driving, asymmetrical rhythms and punching, explosive gestures to an almost overpowering pitch.

Kluge is superb at high-voltage works like this — if you haven’t heard him conduct, you’re missing a great musical experience — and turned in a taut, visceral reading, perhaps the most exciting heard here in years.

“Rite” was written as a dance, of course, and for this performance seven members of the Bowen McCauley Dance troupe joined the orchestra in a ballet choreographed by Lucy Bowen McCauley. Unfortunately, the Atrium itself seemed to work against them. Dressed in dun-colored costumes and dancing on a black mat, the dancers became increasingly difficult to see as the natural light of the Atrium darkened, and with the spotlights aimed elsewhere — at the art, at the audience, everywhere but the performers themselves — they finally turned into shadows, dancing in the dark. But what was visible was lyrical indeed, and kudos to the troupe for soldiering on — particularly Alicia Curtis, who perished quite beautifully in the Sacrificial Dance that closes the work.

Posted on Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 11:30AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Great Noise Ensemble at the Atlas

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 19, 2013

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.

Shawn JaegerThat 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 Sean Doylerich 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.


Posted on Monday, May 20, 2013 at 06:50PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Pomerium at the Phillips Collection

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.


Posted on Monday, May 13, 2013 at 12:13PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Carducci String Quartet at the Terrace Theater

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.


Posted on Monday, May 13, 2013 at 12:06PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint