For National Gallery midday concert, Rotunda shapes up superbly

March 17, 2011

Who in their right mind would put on a concert in the Rotunda of the National Gallery of Art? The place is a nightmare — an echoing, marble-lined cavern, a glorified hallway swarming with hordes of chattering tourists and schoolkids. There’s nowhere to sit, no stage, no lighting — and on top of that, there’s a 12-foot-tall fountain right in the center. A concert of serious music here? Are you . . . sure?

Thankfully, Steve Antosca — director of the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble — was unfazed by the challenges, even turning them to his advantage in a spectacular, wonderfully provocative midday concert Wednesday.

Wiring the Rotunda with a battery of speakers, Antosca transformed it into an immense temple of sound, presenting a program of theatrical new works that married humans with computers, and ancient myths with contemporary aesthetics. Temple bells were rung by drum-playing robots; a musician’s gestures were transformed, via computer, into a symphony of otherworldly sounds; and the birth of the world (no less) was enacted powerfully in sound. Not your ordinary day at the museum.

Virtually every work on the program pushed out the possibilities of human performance in intriguing ways. Musician Forrest Tobey, for instance, seemed to “play” the empty space around him by moving small batons (known as a Buchla Lightning wands) in a piece by Antosca called “echoic landscape”; each gesture was read by a computer and turned into sound, from disembodied bells to torrents of notes that swept around the room.

“Penelope’s Song” by Judith Shatin took a yearning lament for saxophone and set it over a recorded track built from the sounds of a wooden loom, in a poignant work derived from the Ulysses myth. Saxophonist Noah Getz accompanied himself on an electronic track as he traced a path through the room in Antosca’s “in every way I remember you.” And in Shatin’s completely charming “Sic Transit,” six robots tapped away cheerfully at wood blocks and bells as they accompanied percussionist Ross Karre.

There was more; it was equally smile-inducing. And if you missed it, take heart: The program repeats Thursday at 12:10 p.m.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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