CrossCurrents Festival Brings Contemporary Music to the Kennedy Center

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 2009

Contemporary music can be a hard sell in Washington, particularly at the generally conservative bastion of the Kennedy Center. So why sell it at all? The CrossCurrents festival, which starts tonight and runs through May 10, is offering everything from avant-garde string quartets to electronic music to percussion ensembles to Egypt's leading living composer. And that's just the free part of the program.

CrossCurrents actually involves every branch of the Kennedy Center's music activities. The main events were curated by Oliver Knussen, the British composer who maintains a delicate balance between "maverick" and "popular" (best known for his operatic version of the children's book "Where the Wild Things Are"), and Joseph Kalichstein, the pianist and artistic director of the Fortas chamber music concerts.

Main events include a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra and Leila Josefowicz, the violinist who just won a MacArthur "genius" grant, performing the Washington premiere of Knussen's Violin Concerto. Meanwhile, the Fortas concerts are presenting a series focusing on composers young (the glamorous composer-pianist-poet Lera Auerbach) and old (the septuagenarian Joan Tower, an energetic trailblazer on the new-music scene), as well as groups such as Britain's Nash Ensemble.

But a festival focusing on the contemporary and the offbeat allows the Millennium Stage, in particular, to come into its own. The free part of the program -- the concerts are at 6 every night -- is every bit as compelling as the paid part. Here, you'll find a range of big names from the edgier sector of the contemporary music scene, the artists who work primarily outside of the major institutions and big concert halls.

The string quartet Ethel will scatter around the hall tomorrow to play a new work by the composer Phil Kline, who is known for his holiday boombox parades through the streets of more and more cities around the world. On Sunday, DBR, a frequent guest at the University of Maryland, colors its music with hip-hop; while the composer-violist Ljova will present his own distinctive brand of world-music-classical fusion on Monday.

The D.C.-based Fuse Ensemble, which includes a video artist as an integral part of the group, performs Wednesday. And on May 9, the quartet So Percussion, self-described as "funky," demonstrates the wide range of instruments and compositions that fall into the percussion bailiwick.

"Without the pressure of ticket sales," says Garth Ross, director of the Kennedy Center's Performing Arts for Everyone initiative, "we're able to forge directions for our series that ultimately may be directions for the center and the world of performance in general, long term." His approach to programming the event was to allow Knussen, Kalichstein and the National Symphony to hammer out their own plans, and then "go in and complement that, and find our own unique space."

It can be hard for mainstream institutions to present cutting-edge contemporary music, however much they believe in it. Even orchestras that program a lot of contemporary music -- and the NSO under Leonard Slatkin was no slouch in that regard -- understandably stick to pieces written by composers who specialize in writing for orchestra, thereby leaving out an increasingly important part of the new-music picture.

Nigel Boon, the NSO's director of artistic planning, is a fervent advocate of contemporary music: "I sort of believe it will keep orchestras alive in the long run," he says. But he observes the difficulty of programming non-standard works. Citing Steve Reich, the grand old man of the avant-garde who just won a long-awaited Pulitzer Prize, he points out, "His music demands all kinds of different ensembles and freelance players. It gets complicated for an orchestra to put on."

Of course, a lot of tremendously important music is written for traditional forces. The "uptown" stuff on the program includes D.C. premieres of Augusta Read Thomas's "Helios Choros I" and "Carillon Sky," Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's Piano Septet, Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Dark Crossing," and the piece that Knussen wrote for his late wife, "Requiem -- Songs for Sue." It's also laudable that in a field traditionally dominated by men, CrossCurrents has assigned such a prominent role to female composers.

But you can't get a complete picture of the contemporary music scene without an admixture of the "downtown" element that the Millennium Stage is showcasing: the smaller, unorthodox ensembles and musical blends that are increasingly preferred by the younger generation.

In Washington, events like the Sonic Circuits festival, spaces like the Warehouse Theater and, notably, modern dance companies offer some performance opportunities for such rising composers. The scene is still small, but Gina Biver, the composer who founded the Fuse Ensemble, describes it as "burgeoning." She has a busy week: After her Millennium Stage performance on Wednesday comes a Friday night performance for a "D.C. Listening Lounge" event at the Warehouse.

"I know there are quite a few ensembles that are modern, edgy art music up there in New York," she says, "but I'm really comfortable in D.C. I would like to [play in] some galleries, small intimate places, and help the scene in D.C. I'd like people to have this here."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company