Domenico Scarlatti’s dense, explosive little sonatas for harpsichord are some of the most arresting works to come out of the Baroque period. There are more than 500, and most last for only a few minutes; they blossom, deliver a punch to the gut or an enigmatic caress, and vanish. Yet their power is astounding; little music of any era packs such kinetic energy and emotional turbulence into so few notes, as Steven Silverman showed during a short but engaging all-Scarlatti recital at the Phillips Collection on Thursday evening.
What made the concert particularly noteworthy, though, was that it took place in a gallery packed with new sculptures by Frank Stella — works that were directly inspired by Scarlatti’s music.
Exuberant and wildly colorful, Stella’s metal-and-resin constructions (part of his “Scarlatti K Series”) seem to hurtle through the gallery like exploding dune buggies, and at first the connection to 17th-century harpsichord music seems a little strained. But as the evening unfolded, the similarities emerged: the same hyper-focused energy, the same unsettling edginess, the same sense that a dangerous new beauty had entered the world.
Silverman played well, if cautiously; this was a cerebral rather than fiery performance, too polite and well-behaved for some tastes but thoughtful, nonetheless. Given that the works on display correspond to specific sonatas, it would have been fascinating to hear those particular pieces, but Silverman chose unrelated works. A missed opportunity, perhaps, to explore musically what was taking place in Stella’s head — which would have been a fascinating evening indeed.