Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Steven Schick and red fish blue fish

The National Gallery of Art's East Building atrium normally echoes only with the chatter and footfalls of the gallery's visitors, but on Sunday night, the world premiere performance of Roger Reynolds's "Sanctuary" filled it with waves of gorgeous, purposeful, minutely detailed sound. Though percussionists created all the initial sounds in "Sanctuary," computers electronically manipulated those sounds and distributed them to various speakers, calibrated for the atrium's acoustic characteristics. Surrounded by speakers, the audience sat on the mezzanine and bridge of the atrium as well as its ground floor, for a once-in-a-lifetime aural experience.

In an illuminating pre-concert lecture, Reynolds described "Sanctuary" as "a kind of history of utterance." Solo percussionist Steven Schick, with whom Reynolds initially conceived the work, explored basic rhythmic patterns in the first movement, "Chatter/Clatter," affixing coins wired with microphones to his fingertips to strike objects, including a 15-year-old Glenfiddich whiskey bottle, which had sonorities that ranged widely. The electronic processing occasionally intervened to transform the patterns into silvery ringing shards of sound or whirlwinds of plunks and plonks.

The succeeding two movements added complexity. In the second, called "Oracle," members of the red fish blue fish percussion ensemble (Justin DeHart, Ross Karre, Fabio Oliveira and Greg Stuart) took turns playing the title instrument, the canister of a washing machine with rods welded on to provide for additional sounds; its utterances drove the consideration and reconsideration of one long rhythmic line.

The finale, "Song," introduced pitched instruments and thus rudimentary melody and harmony (you didn't walk out of this concert whistling a tune) that nevertheless felt revelatory -- the culmination of a process of questioning and development that, in this exemplary realization of the score, sounded strange and remote but also, somehow, universal and timeless.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

The Swell Season

When the Swell Season -- essentially Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Mark¿ta Irglov¿ -- played U Street's beautiful Lincoln Theatre last December, they nearly upstaged headliner Damien Rice. Returning to the Lincoln on Sunday night, the Swell Season were deservedly the main attraction, riding a wave from the sleeper hit movie "Once," wherein Hansard and Irglov¿ basically play less famous versions of themselves, falling in love (kind of) as they wander Dublin composing songs together.

The movie and the duo's songs share a bittersweet hue, but Sunday's concert was purely celebratory. Performing in various configurations -- Hansard solo, Hansard/Irglov¿ duo, and as a five-piece with cellist Bertrand Galen, violinist Marja Tuhkanen and Frames fiddler Colm MacConlomaire -- the ensemble conjured up forceful yet intimate readings of songs from the Swell Season's sole album and the "Once" soundtrack, Frames favorites and well-chosen covers of songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and, um, Michelle Shocked. (Don't snicker. The rave-up of Shocked's "Fogtown" that closed the main set was one of the evening's highlights.) But the lovesick ballads featured prominently in "Once" -- "Falling Slowly," "When Your Mind's Made Up" and the title track -- drew the biggest cheers from a rapt audience that mostly stayed quiet enough during the performances to let these haunting, fragile ballads resonate.

Onstage as on-screen, Hansard and Irglov¿'s chemistry is palpable. Truly, theirs is a match made in heaven. Okay, Ireland. On this night, it was close enough.

-- Chris Klimek

Kim Kashkashian And Lydia Artymiw

The internationalism of the program was as impressive as the playing in Sunday's recital by violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Lydia Artymiw at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda. Kashkashian, of Armenian descent, and Artymiw, of Ukrainian parentage, started with a German work: Bach's Sonata No. 3 for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. They gave it a warm, emotional reading, slightly marred by the full sound of a modern Steinway overwhelming the viola in some passages.

The instrumental balance was better in the 20th-century works that made up the rest of the recital. Excerpts from Romanian-Hungarian composer Gy¿rgy Kurt¿g's "Signs, Games and Messages," for solo viola, were interlaced with pieces from his "J¿t¿kok" for solo piano. The atonal miniatures featured very wide dynamics and expressiveness, ranging in mood from aggressive to quietly contemplative.

Next came a visit to Argentina: Three Songs for Viola and Piano by Carlos Guastavino. The piano begins all of these broadly romantic works and often takes a dominant role, but Kashkashian's viola stood forth warmly and beautifully, especially in the hauntingly lovely "Bonita Rama de Sauce."

Then it was on to Russia for Shostakovich's daunting Sonata for Viola and Piano. The first movement was a touch lacking in intensity, but the grotesqueries of the second were nicely highlighted. And the finale, permeated by bits of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, was dark and impassioned, eventually not so much ending as subsiding.

A quick trip to Armenia, for a folk-song encore, was a delightful way to lighten the mood and end the musical tour.

-- Mark J. Estren

Capital Wind Symphony

Washington is home to many choral and orchestral groups, but the birthplace of John Philip Sousa, the "March King," boasts few wind ensembles aside from military and collegiate bands. Fortunately, a number of talented instrumentalists have sought out these rare outlets, including the McLean-based Capital Wind Symphony, which gave a fine performance Sunday afternoon at the Schlesinger Concert Hall.

The 70-member group, under conductor George Etheridge, excelled at the jazz-influenced "Blue Shades" by Frank Ticheli. With the brass growling away and the woodwinds brightly nailing all the licks, the ensemble journeyed from the sultry sounds of a blues club to the wailing music of the big band era. Likewise, in Michael Gandolfi's "Vientos y Tangos," the wind symphony generated intense Latin rhythms and a variety of moods as it showcased its impressive clarinet section.

Playing with warmth and clarity, the winds demonstrated a keen sense of balance in Haydn Wood's "Mannin Veen," based upon four folk tunes from the Isle of Man, the English composer's childhood home.

The group generated glorious swells in Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Variations for Wind Band," but it also created layer upon layer of sonorities to the point where listeners had to work hard to distinguish the melodies from the muddle. The hall was partly to blame, much as it was at fault in an arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565. Both pieces lacked the crystalline passages that the ensemble displayed in other works.

-- Grace Jean

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