A Pianist's Salute to Native American Composers

Thursday, November 13, 2008

For the last three years, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian has been mounting one of the more adventurous concert series in town, showcasing new classical music by Native American composers. Admit it -- you didn't know there was such stuff. But as Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli demonstrated at the museum's elegant little Rasmuson Theater on Tuesday night, there's a little-known world of vibrant Native American music out there that defies categorization -- and deserves to be more widely heard.

Take, for instance, Louis Ballard's "Osage Variations," which opened the evening. Like other works on the program, there was nothing overtly or obviously "Indian" about it; in fact, its musical language was fairly conventional. But the theme was gorgeous, and the variations wildly vivid, rich in melodic invention and dramatic power. Similarly, George Quincy, a Choctaw, showed a postmodernist edge in his three-part "The Release of the Choctaw Fire Bird," which blended 19th-century romanticism, contemporary angularity and folkish melodic fragments into a colorful and distinctive whole.

Quincy's piece evoked ancient myths (a theme throughout the evening), as did "Sky Bear," a dazzling, kinetic work by the Mohican Brent Michael Davids. The world premiere of Barbara Croall's "Inscription Rock" was equally intriguing but much darker in tone, using dampened strings to evoke elemental sounds. Raven Chacon, a Navajo (and the most avant-garde of the composers), contributed the spare, meditative "Nilchi Shada'ji Nalaghali" for piano and electronic sounds; an admirable piece, but hard to love.

Arciuli played well throughout but pulled out the stops only for "Phrygian Gates" by the non-Native American composer John Adams. A sonorous, hypnotic work from Adams's minimalist period in the 1970s, it's a gem of American piano music, and Arciuli played it -- there's no other word--magnificently.

-- Stephen Brookes


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