Verge Ensemble captures century of expressionism in one set

April 1, 2011

In a city whose general artistic bent is to err on the side of caution, Verge Ensemble has once again proved itself an exception to the rule. In Thursday’s program at La Maison Francaise, “When Kandinsky Met Schoenberg,” artistic director Steve Antosca oversaw an undertaking of bearishly difficult yet transfixing music performed with uniform clarity and deceptive ease.

A century has passed since painter Wassily Kandinsky first encountered composer Arnold Schoenberg’s emerging atonalism. An abstractionist shift resulted in the painter’s works, and Antosca’s program paralleled that epiphany via its progression from purely acoustic to the real-time incorporation of the digital.

Schoenberg’s opening 1908 String Quartet is an evocative, evolutionary work that, by its final movement, breaks from tonality. This transition was rendered seamlessly by instrumentalists Michael Kannen, Lina Bahn, Maria Lambros and James Stern and the poignantly delivered vocal line of soprano Kathryn Hearden.

Following composer Luigi Dallapiccola’s 12-tone instrumental octet, “Little Night Music,” things went digital — not intrusively, but rather in the integral sense of real-time participation. Antosca’s 1982 composition, “For Two,” consummately played by violinist Bahn and cellist Tobias Werner, seemed reincarnated now that technology has finally caught up with his intent.

Opening with disturbingly vespid trills, Werner’s demanding reading of Kaija Saariaho’s “Petals” evolved into a combination of antiphonal beauty and something of mad scene, a one-way conversation between cello and its digital alter ego.

While Verge’s programming continues to plead for modern dance, the visual element emerged full-blown in Alan Price’s interactive animation of composer Linda Dusman’s closing “Magnificat 3: Lament.” Based not only on the Virgin Mary’s poetic “yes” to Christ’s incarnation but also on the composer’s “no” to a world of escalating violence against children, “Magnificat” used the fullest expression of Stern’s violin in a live duet with a projected scene of vines, thorns, flowers, wings — all symbolic of birth, death and renewal. In a word: stunning.

Thigpen is a freelance writer.

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