Composer Steve Antosca likes to keep thing unpredictable.
As the former director of the venerable Verge Ensemble and now as the head of the National Gallery of Art’s New Music Ensemble, he has brought wildly imaginative concerts — featuring everything from drum-playing robots to “echoic landscapes” created by motion-capturing devices — to Washington for more than a decade. That anything-goes spirit was alive and well Sunday night, when the New Music Ensemble mounted a high-tech — but often lyrical and gently beguiling — multimedia performance at the gallery’s East Building auditorium.
Antosca is particularly interested in the integration of computers with traditional instruments, and the evening opened with the premiere of his “My End is My Beginning,” in which the playing of an acoustic ensemble (harpist Jacqueline Pollauf, saxophonist Noah Getz, pianist Laurie Hudicek and percussionist Ross Karre) is processed through computers (manned by William Brent), then broadcast through a battery of speakers around the hall. It took a few minutes for the complex textures to clarify, but the result was a shimmering, multilayered sea of sound, surging with power under a surface of delicate detail — a fascinating dance between the human players and their electronic ghosts.
Pollauf and Getz (who perform as the harp-saxophone duo Pictures on Silence) followed with a lighter but lovely piece, Andrew Earle Simpson’s “Summer-Night Songs.” A sort of pastoral nocturne, it’s full of detailed, coloristic effects that unfold as images of a summer sky flow by silently overhead, from dusk to starlight to a golden dawn. It’s atmospheric music, in every sense of the word, and a delight.
Not everything on the program worked quite as well. John Belkot’s deliberately open-ended “The Woman with Renoir’s Umbrella” seemed clumsy compared with the earlier works, and its accompanying black-and-white film (three versions of a boy-meets-girl story) had a sophomoric art-school feel. Miklós Maros’s “Rabescatura” (“Arabesque”) was a tour de force for solo saxophone. Getz gave it a polished performance, though the work was so clearly and solidly structured that Getz could have loosened up a bit and injected a more spontaneous, improvisational feel.
The evening ended with a sort of musical joy ride — Fernando Benadon’s “Cotxes” (“Cars”), in which video of a drive to nowhere through the streets of Barcelona on a sunny morning is accompanied by a pleasantly flowing soundtrack, as if the radio were tuned to an upbeat “lite” modern station.
Brookes is a freelance writer.