Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sarah Chang

The vague personality of Richard Danielpour's "River of Light" is especially disappointing considering the work's genesis. Commissioned by the charitable foundation established by the late violinist Isaac Stern and his wife, Linda, "River of Light" was written for violinist Sarah Chang, who presented its Washington-area premiere with pianist Ashley Wass on Sunday afternoon at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Chang said she had requested that the work reflect the character of Stern, the revered dean of American violinists, who played a major role in her musical life. But the resulting work focuses more on Danielpour's "attempt to prepare for the inevitable," as he wrote in a program note, meaning the journey across the river and into death that awaits us all.

In the work, gentle, hushed dissonances serve as connective tissue for blossoms of melody and a couple angry outbursts, all of which rise and fade without much affecting what comes before or after. The work boils down in the memory to a contemplative mood, and little more. Perhaps some sort of image of Stern might have anchored the work; instead, it felt remote and impersonal, and thus unaffecting.

Chang and Wass proved they could play sweetly and cleanly in their performance of the Danielpour, but they made the other music on the program fierce and rough wherever possible. The approach worked poorly in Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, where the duo pumped up the already turbulent music into an unrelieved series of explosive climaxes, meaning no dramatic arc ever emerged. Prokofiev's Second Violin Sonata fared better, as Chang and Wass merrily knocked around its ebullient passages while allowing the more tranquil slow movement to sing freely.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Contemporary Music Forum

In music, the label "contemporary" has shifted into the 21st century, abandoning the 20th century's first half, which includes a multitude of compositions often representing conflicting stylistic directions. On Sunday the Contemporary Music Forum brought a program of new music to the Phillips Collection, with six members of the group performing works dating from 1988 to this year.

The concert was an intriguing one, rooted in the classical tradition but revealing a mix of current techniques. Opening the one-hour concert, Jeffrey Mumford's astringent yet harmonically pungent "Undiluted Days" was skillfully played with concentrated energy and a keen sense of continuity by violinist Lina Bahn, cellist Tobias Werner and pianist Audrey Andrist.

Werner, Andrist and clarinetist David Jones teamed up for Douglas Boyce's "Book of Etudes," an intriguing work unified by related motifs subjected to hammering repetitions and displaced rhythms in the mode of an exercise, but much more expressive. Expertly played by Bahn and Werner, Anthony Villa's handsome "Duo" engages in teasing melodic runs and pleasantly provocative effects. Soprano Kathryn Hearden joined with flutist David Whiteside for "Three Irish Folk Song Settings," the old melodies gracefully and movingly arranged by the well-known composer John Corigliano. They were rendered with resonant poignancy.

Steve Antosca's "One Becomes Two" was the afternoon's most exciting composition. It was performed with knowing sensitivity by Bahn, her violin plugged into Antosca's laptop, her fiddle generating ambient electronically controlled responses that were repeated or transformed into vaporous, liquid reflections of her sound.

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