National Symphony Orchestra Has a Contemporary Music Night With Oliver Knussen

Leila Josefowicz shone in Oliver Knussen's warm violin concerto.
Leila Josefowicz shone in Oliver Knussen's warm violin concerto. (By J. Henry Fair)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

Each of the four pieces in the National Symphony Orchestra's concert last night required a listener to meet it halfway. But this isn't unusual for music one is hearing for the first time. It was contemporary music night at the NSO, the orchestra's contribution to the Kennedy Center's CrossCurrents Festival, a contemporary music celebration that lasts through Sunday. And Oliver Knussen, the composer and conductor, selected and led a program of music by living composers.

But if you had to meet the music halfway, at least it was music that wanted to be met. That is: It wasn't always easy, but it wasn't in-your-face, who-cares-if-you-listen music, either. Accessible is a freighted word, but if this music wasn't quite that, each piece had things to offer a smart listener on a first encounter -- which was Knussen's goal, as he told the audience before the performance of his violin concerto, the evening's focus.

"The mark of good music is that it makes some kind of impression," Knussen said, "even if it makes you angry." But this wasn't an angry program. It was musically rather conservative, offering a look at composers who focus on creating works for the standard symphony orchestra: It didn't break new ground. But it had no agenda or ax to grind, and that was in itself refreshing.

The discovery, for me, was Julian Anderson, whose "Imagin'd Corners" (written for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where he used to be composer-in-residence) was a perfect curtain-raiser, feeling out the boundaries of the concert hall by placing natural horns, valveless ancestors of the modern horn, at the back of it and then having them rejoin the main forces partway through, mirroring the way the audience enters and gradually focuses attention on the main event. It featured moments of controlled chaos: a stew of woodwinds bubbling among the strings, or, at the end, anarchic cymbal crashes as the horns staked out the four corners of the stage and bound the orchestra within their tones.

Leila Josefowicz, the MacArthur Award-winning violinist, was the star attraction of Knussen's violin concerto. Knussen described the part, which he wrote for Pinchas Zukerman, as a high-wire walk between the crashing chords that mark the piece's beginning and end, and Josefowicz indeed played with a fine wire of sound while the orchestra roiled and curled throatily around her. It's a romantic, warm concerto; the secret of Knussen's success is that he draws on a familiar language but sounds fresh, and if it wasn't arresting, it was effective.

After the British first half, the second was all-American, with Augusta Read Thomas's "Helios Choros I" and Gunther Schuller's "Of Reminiscences and Reflections," a mini-symphony that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

Thomas is perhaps the most cerebral of the evening's composers; her piece, conceived as a dance though it has not been so performed, rootled and bustled energetically through complex harmonies, almost fierce in its determination to be effervescent. She is a skilled technician, pulling in a wide range of sounds; I particularly liked the complex, chewy juxtaposition of driving piano, singing strings and the tocks and clicks of percussion. Schuller's piece, a memorial to his late wife, is an unbuttoned elegy -- dark, expressive and anguished -- and made a comprehensible conclusion.

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