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Performing Arts

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

'COPLAND AND THE COLD WAR'

Like Stravinsky with his "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto, Aaron Copland had a musical tie-in to the Washington area -- his music for the 1939 documentary "The City." The film's scriptwriter, urban historian Lewis Mumford, envisioned a future of planned communities such as Greenbelt -- an optimism that Copland's music rather wanly reflected.

Copland also had a less happy association with Washington: He was grilled by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1953 about communist influence on the arts.

At Georgetown University on Saturday night, both connections were on display in "Copland and the Cold War" -- part piano recital, part film screening, part reenactment and part academic analysis. Portions of "The City," an American indulgence in socialist realism that is just out on DVD with the score recorded by the Post-Classical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, showed Copland's populist outreach. The composer's communist sympathies in the 1930s came through in an audience singalong of "Into the Streets May First," an embarrassing call to destroy the bourgeoisie and raise the hammer and sickle. (Copland later disowned it.) Members of Georgetown's theater and performance studies program led the singing and reenacted some of Copland's awkward, squirming congressional testimony. Joseph McCartin, an associate professor of history, put Copland's politics in the historical context of the Great Depression.

Through it all, pianist Benjamin Pasternack vibrantly traced the composer's musical development, from "The Cat and the Mouse" (1920) through the dramatic Piano Variations (1930) to, finally, the expansive Piano Fantasy (1957). The latter piece employs an esoteric use of Schoenbergian principles, showing Copland in full post-McCarthy retreat from any attempt to appeal to the populace at large.

-- Mark J. Estren

LEFT BANK CONCERT SOCIETY

The Left Bank Concert Society took a leap of faith in devoting an entire evening to the music of Philadelphia composer Michael Hersch at Georgetown's Dumbarton Church on Saturday. At 38, Hersch has a slew of prestigious awards and premieres of his works over the past decade, much of his music being programmed here and internationally by illustrious conductors and performers. A native of Washington, Hersch grew up in Virginia, graduated from the Peabody Conservatory and now teaches there.

You can't say the music heard Saturday is delicate. Hersch presented local premieres of his "Two Pieces for Piano" (2003) and the suite from "The Vanishing Pavilions" (2006). The two works showed his virtuosic command of the piano and his trademark entrancement with its percussive potential: riffs of repeatedly erupting tone clusters sandwiched between crashing cascades of notes up and down the keyboard. While these effects mapped out the symmetry of each piece, they also came close to rupturing eardrums -- aided by an acoustically resonant sanctuary.

Saxophonist Gary Louie and cellist Evelyn Elsing, artistic director of the Left Bank, gave the first performance of Hersch's "Last Autumn," commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society and Louie himself. Using fragments of a haunting poem by W.G. Sebald, Hersch translated the text into an abstract musical language. The result was a panorama of dark sonic colors and evocative emotions often superimposed on each other but differentiated by an unusual coupling of highly contrasting instruments: the sax (cavorting between its rich vocabulary of tongued and slurred phrasing) and the cello (charging ahead with myriad bowing techniques combined with plucking, strumming and tapping of the instrument). Louie and Elsing injected gradually overpowering emotion into the music's moments of effusive lyricism. Though heard only in part Saturday, the piece is an arresting tour de force and would be even more so if further pared down.

-- Cecelia Porter

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