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NSO Ends CrossCurrents Festival on a Contemporary High Note

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It ended with a bang, and a whimper. After exposing Washington audiences to 10 days of contemporary music, the Kennedy Center's CrossCurrents Festival concluded on Sunday afternoon at the Terrace Theater with yet another elegy.

Lera Auerbach's setting of Marina Tsvetaeva's elegy to Rainer Maria Rilke was on the opening program. Gunther Schuller's expressive tribute to his late wife was on the National Symphony Orchestra's program. And on Sunday's final program, devoted to works for large chamber ensembles and performed by members of the National Symphony Orchestra, was "Requiem -- Songs for Sue" by Oliver Knussen, the composer-conductor who curated a good portion of the festival and who wrote this piece after his wife's death in 2003. This thematic interplay is the kind of "crosscurrent," one surmises, that the festival was trying to establish.

"Whimper" is actually the wrong word for Knussen's vital and fluent piece, a setting of four poems by Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado, W.H. Auden and Rilke that managed to be clear and direct while avoiding the cliches of mere sentiment. Presented with authority by the soprano Elizabeth Keusch, the music wove the four texts into a seamless whole, moving from one poem to the next and giving each its due until, suddenly, it stopped.

The corresponding "bang" was provided by Julian Anderson's "Alhambra Fantasy," which expanded on the barely controlled chaos of his "Imagin'd Corners" that the NSO performed last week, but lacked the same sense of direction and focus. Instead, it made a lot of exuberant sounds with increasingly frantic percussion, interwoven with brass that sounded tamer than it meant to, like a housecat posing as a lion. The music's gestures grew rather blunted as they continued, in part due to a certain self-consciousness.

Augusta Read Thomas represented another overlap with the NSO program. Her "Carillon Sky" -- Thomas is great at titles -- is a miniature violin concerto that was beautifully played by the NSO's associate concertmaster Elizabeth Adkins, down to the optional cadenza that the performer is called on to write herself. Thomas said in remarks to the audience that it was difficult for her, a Type-A composer, to allow the performer so much freedom. It was a telling remark, since a weakness of her music is that it can be overthought; this piece, setting out to be lyrical and poetic, became a little precious.

Sunday's program was rounded out with two more pieces, one on each side of the American-Brit divide. "Metamorphoses" by Sean Shepherd, a young American, is a collection of short movements inspired by Anton Webern in length but not at all in their rather discursive mood and full sound, with the piano acting as a kind of narrator to singing bits of cello and blurts of brass.

And "Dark Crossing" by Mark-Anthony Turnage shows the composer moving from his original status as bad boy of British composers into an area that wants to be more weighty, but is not, perhaps, entirely comfortable. Aptly named, the piece is dark indeed, its colors dominated by low strings and brass instruments (including a euphonium), and intense. It uncurls out of a first movement patterned on Debussy's "La Mer," launches into a bubbling, seething second movement, and ends with a slow movement, its wavering brass chords punctuated with the sepulchral heartbeat of basses, that finally drifts up against its conclusion, as if beaching on the shore.

The festival, too, drifted to harbor, a little uncertain about where it had been. Its organizers were optimistic that it had been worth the trip. "We understand that it was riskier programming. . . . We were prepared not to have full houses," said Rita Shapiro, the NSO's executive director, although she refused to cite any audience figures. (Sunday's hall was woefully empty.) But, she said, CrossCurrents "really helped us to find and start to increase our audience for contemporary music." And she added that "the audiences were really passionate and really interested," citing as evidence the Afterwords discussion after the NSO concert, which went on much longer than usual.

When this festival was announced last year, the Kennedy Center and the NSO made a point of saying that they were not ghettoizing contemporary music, and that they would continue to include it on a range of programs -- such as the Daniel Kellogg piece that the NSO premiered last month and is taking to China in June. Nonetheless, the festival raised the question of whether setting contemporary music apart in a special zone of its own is the way for large institutions to go.

Unexpectedly, I came out of CrossCurrents thinking that the answer may be "yes." An audience that knows it is going to hear four contemporary works on an orchestral program listens differently than an audience compelled to sit through a single contemporary work in order to get to the Beethoven. I'm all for orchestras encouraging contemporary programming, but all orchestra-goers are familiar with the resistance the obligatory contemporary piece often meets with. The CrossCurrents Festival at least explored alternatives to that model. Its solution, at this first iteration, meant more involvement for an admittedly smaller audience.

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