At Corcoran Gallery, Verge Ensemble puts focus on the flute

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.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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