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Young Artists' Tonal Recall

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 11, 2008

In American classical music, the dominant style for the past half-century -- spread by such academics as Babbitt, Carter, Wuorinen and Sessions -- has few adherents among today's younger set. Leaving listeners scratching their heads is no longer seen as a cardinal virtue, and the new voices draw from a remarkably eclectic and accessible range of influences and materials.

Younger voices, too, are unapologetic about looking to the past, as refracted through modern ears. The attempt to stifle tonality has been a long and interesting exercise, but from all indications, it is failing.

These thoughts came to mind at Monday's Young Concert Artists of Washington 30th-anniversary concert at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, consisting of local and world premieres of works by five young composers, performed by a brace of nationally known artists.

The YCA cannot be praised enough for this endeavor, showcasing the work of the next generation in near-ideal circumstances. Space will permit only the briefest discussion of the pieces, but the large, enthusiastic audience made its approbation and enthusiasm quite clear to the five composers.

"Red River," a work for piano trio, clarinet and electronics by Mason Bates, was a bit pretentious, sounding at the outset like the institutional music you hear at the beginning of a movie. It was the only piece on the program to feature electronics, and like all such creations, it was an uneasy pairing, raising the question of whether the live performers were in charge of anything or, ultimately, necessary at all. There were, however, some a cappella sections that featured witty, jazzy writing for the ensemble.

Benjamin Boyle was the pianist for his own Sonata-Fantasy with violinist Tim Fain, who earns special praise for committing the complex, 18-minute work to memory. Boyle's lush, romantic style, redolent of Franck and Ravel, was instantly enjoyable, though there was insufficient contrast among the three movements.

Andrew Norman's voice was the most modernistic of the five. His language invokes Britten and Schnittke, where the notes are sometimes just washes of sound, but the music is alive and vital. His solo viola piece, "Sabina," full of sound effects, might have outlasted its welcome, but mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was mesmerizing in his "Lullaby."

The excellent Borromeo String Quartet read Daniel Kellogg's "Four Valentines" off laptop computers; the visuals were particularly ironic because the music itself was the most conservative of the evening, in the style of Barber. Although he can certainly create beauty, Kellogg should do more. Like Boyle, he has not found sufficient contrast in his materials to fully support different movements; the first three "Valentines" were all of a piece.

Kevin Puts hit on a great combination of instruments for "And Legions Will Rise" -- violin, clarinet and marimba. The magical sounds he invented more than made up for the relative thinness of musical argument. With lots of rhythmic ostinatos and drones, the piece was mostly about color and playfulness, but it drew cheers for its energy and charm.

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