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Taming the Most Savage Beast

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page C09

"A composer's mission is to illuminate the best and worst of mankind," says Murry Sidlin, the erudite dean of the Catholic University School of Music. In his mind, music must be more than some self-contained entity, however intelligently constructed or novel. Music must serve a larger purpose.

On Saturday evening at the university's Pryzbyla Center, Sidlin and colleagues had the chance to put that idea into practice. With a novel twist, students and faculty performed works of composers who have put their creative powers in the service of one of the most ambitious and perhaps wholly unrealistic of human ideals: bringing an end to global conflict. The concert was part of a four-day symposium on peace-seeking musicians dubbed "Waging Peace."

Catholic University's Murry Sidlin developed the antiwar concept for Saturday's concert. (Catholic University)

The evening's centerpiece was the world premiere of "Songs of the Forgotten War," for which the school commissioned composers around the region to submit one-minute musical reflections on the 19 statues of the Korean War Memorial. Professor Andrew Simpson coordinated.

"Songs of the Forgotten War" has a surprising cohesion, partly because Simpson smartly arranged the works into a larger structure and partly because of the well-rehearsed ensemble, which rendered every phrase with emotional sensitivity. Yet to listen to the 20-minute performance was mostly to hear a constantly shifting musical fabric that highlighted the diversity and perhaps fragmented nature of contemporary music.

James Ra's "Elegie Pastorale" started with a Korean folk song, sung with commitment by soprano Lisa Edwards-Burns. The gentleness of Ra's work and the lyricism of Leo Nestor's "There Will Come Soft Rains" were worlds away from such dense and anguished works as Daniel Luzko's "Korean Memorial," infused with the constant repetition of a minimalist score and flecked with dissonant chords. Simpson's own work, "Contact," was a crystalline piece that disappeared as soon as it emerged, like a wisp of smoke.

Pianist Ivo Kaltchev immersed himself in Viktor Ullman's Piano Sonata No. 7. Stretching the music's textures to heighten the searing emotion, Kaltchev magnified the dark side of this piece. The Rome Trio -- pianist Marilyn Neeley, violinist Jody Gatwood and cellist Robert Newkirk -- gave an alternately austere, romping and melodic account of Dmitri Shostakovich's Trio in E Minor, Op. 67, while Stephen Gaertner used his dexterous and attractive baritone to render a suitably sharp and abrasive account of Ned Rorem's "War Scenes." Like the rest of the evening's works, Rorem's spoke of the overwhelming nature of war and the perhaps quixotic attempt of artists to confront it head-on.

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