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.

-- Cecelia Porter

Choral Arts Society

The Choral Arts Society of Washington performed a welcome act of musical resurrection at its Sunday afternoon Kennedy Center concert, programming a large-scale vocal work of the largely forgotten composer Amy Beach. The performance of her "Canticle of the Sun," Op. 123, was thoroughly prepared and thoughtfully delivered, if not always engaging.

The problem was not the texts of the 1930 work, which draw from the powerful devotional poem of Saint Francis of Assisi and conjure cinematic images of God reflected in nature's grandeur. Nor was vocal writing a hindrance. This artist from New England, a prolific songwriter in her day, possessed an idiomatic sense of the rise and fall of the English language, along with a keen ability to spin a floating vocal line.

Summoned to their best were the musicians -- the orchestra that put Beach's dense writing in high relief, the singers who brought great commitment to their parts. Tenor Robert Baker, soprano Elizabeth Keusch, mezzo-soprano Linda Maguire and bass James Shaffran infused their affecting solos with precision and power. The chorus sang with blended warmth and tight ensemble in both the climactic busy sequences and, more rarely, the more poignant sustained passages.

The issue was ultimately a matter of Beach's sensibility, which in this piece comes off as Victorian and bombastic. She seems to lack patience to let the music develop, reaching quickly for the grand outburst. Heavy-handed orchestration added to the overbearing atmosphere.

At the start, the society's director, Norman Scribner, elicited more noble symmetries out of Bach's cantata "God, the Lord, is sun and shield," BWV 79, albeit with some intonation slips and ragged entries from the orchestra. Francis Poulenc's "Stabat Mater" turned out the true find in the end. Scribner pointed up the seemingly limitless supply of drama in this propulsive, 12-movement masterwork, while the rapturous singing of Keusch brought a more sensuous and enveloping tenderness.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Washington Men's Camerata

Washington Men's Camerata Music Director Frank Albinder is certainly game for a challenge. In the program "Northern Lights," presented on Sunday afternoon at the Church of the Epiphany, he took his 50-some amateur singers to the remote musical terrain of Scandinavia. Performing works that encompassed seven different languages and diverse musical styles, this was an ambitious trip.

The heart of the program was contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara's "Elaman Kirja" ("A Book of Life"), an 11-movement work for unaccompanied male ensemble, featuring texts by poets ranging from Rainer Maria Rilke to Dag Hammarskjold.

Written in 1972 for the Helsinki University Male Voice Choir, this journey through life is eclectically rendered in music sometimes vaguely impressionistic, sometimes mystical and chantlike, sometimes rhythmically driving and percussive. The Camerata bravely forded these waters, facing the difficulties of ambiguous tonality, densely overlapping phrases and foreign diction with varying degrees of success.

A better and more comfortable fit for the ensemble were less challenging but quite engaging works from Edvard Grieg's "Album for Male Voices," Hugo Alfven's drop-dead gorgeous "Aftonen," the rousing chorale from Sibelius's "Finlandia" and a hilarious nonsense song by Jaako Mantyjarvi, "Pseudo-Yoik NT," performed with irreverent glee and timbral playfulness.

One wished that the Camerata had held onto the same confidence, boisterousness and sheer delight in playing with sound in the Rautavaara as well. But Albinder is nonetheless to be commended for throwing down the gauntlet and for bringing underperformed and worthy repertoire to American audiences.

-- Sarah Hoover

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